Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There by Noam Chomsky. Pantheon, $20.50, $8.95 paper.

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Here is a partial history of Soviet-American relations. The United States tried to strangle the new Soviet regime by financing a civil war and a foreign invasion; imposed an economic boycott and withheld diplomatic recognition for 16 years; ignored urgent Soviet pleas throughout the 1930s for a defensive alliance against Hitler; colluded with Britain to ensure that Russia would bear the main burden of fighting Nazi Germany, at horrific cost; refused postwar reconstruction aid on reasonable terms; whipped up anti-Soviet hysteria at home to justify the creation of a peacetime military establishment; trained and airlifted operatives into the Soviet Union from 1949 to 1952 to organize insurrections; and, in an unprecedented violation of international law, regularly overflew Soviet territory with high-altitude spy planes. In October 1962 the United States accepted what both John and Robert Kennedy described as a near-50 per cent probability of nuclear war in order to establish the principle that the United States has the right to maintain missiles on the perimeter of the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union has no corresponding right. In the 1960s the CIA deployed several thousand men and more than $100 million in a terrorist campaign of sabotage and attempted assassination against the Soviet Union’s only Western Hemisphere ally, Cuba. Despite Soviet fears, the United States is gradually moving toward a military alliance with a hostile great power on Russia’s border. And the United States has, three times in a generation, bombed defenseless Asian countries and amassed, over the past three decades, an extensive record of intervention and subversion throughout the world.

Nevertheless, we are assured by Norman Podhoretz in his influential little book, The Present Danger, that this history can be adequately characterized in the following terms: on one side, “unrelenting Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world”; on the other, “American resolve to resist the forward surge of Soviet imperialism,” “a fight for freedom and against communism, for democracy and against totalitarianism.” Such is the mental atmosphere in which Noam Chomsky has tried, largely in vain, to persuade American intellectuals to apply to the international behavior of the United States the same analytical and moral standards they properly apply to the behavior of other states. Towards a New Cold War is another splendid, doomed effort in that direction.

How do we analyze the foreign policy of other states? In general, and quite rationally, we seek first to determine the structure of power within the society in question, on the natural assumption that foreign policy will be designed to serve the needs and interests of those who hold domestic power. We also assume that those who wield power will seek to have their interest disguised by a cooperative intelligentsia as the “national interest” or even better, as an impartial and beneficent ideal. Thus, as Chomsky observes, in “discussing the Soviet Union, no reasonable person hesitates to entertain the possibility that its foreign policy is designed to enhance the power and privilege of the ruling military-bureaucratic elite, that the system of propaganda is committed to denying and concealing these facts, and that the pattern of coercion and repression that results from Soviet intervention reflect the perceived needs of this ruling group.”

Applied to our own society, this mode of reasoning yields straightforward and quite similar conclusions. The locus of power in the United States is the private business sector, particularly the major corporations, whose representatives mostly staff the state executive and who, through investment cutbacks, capital flight, and the erosion of all-important “business confidence,” can set decisive limits on unacceptable political reform. Hence we correctly expect that American foreign policy will be “guided by the primary commitment to improving the climate for business operations in a global system that is open to exploitation of human and material resources by those who dominate the domestic economy” (Chomsky), even if maintaining this openness requires imposing local regimes which will crush unions and other popular organizations, trash domestic welfare programs, facilitate the plunder of minerals and the ruin of indigenous agriculture, and in the process torture, murder, imprison, and exile “subversive elements” on a vast scale. We also find—again, as we would expect— that all this is generally portrayed in American scholarship and the media as a selfless commitment to the spread of liberal democracy, economic freedom, self-determination, human rights, and so on.

In every society, this elementary critical perspective is employed as a matter of course with respect to all other societies, especially official enemies. With respect to one’s own society, it is derided by official ideologists as a “radical critique” (the cruder Soviet usage is “anti-socialist slander”) and, when referred to at all in the academic or journalistic mainstream, is usually treated as beyond the pale of responsible opinion. Although pungently written, rigorously argued, and awesomely documented, Towards a New Cold War is quite modest in its aims: to vindicate the plausible hypothesis that American foreign policy, like all others, fundamentally reflects the distribution of domestic power, and to illustrate the predictable conformism and servility of the American political intelligentsia. It succeeds.

Tracing the evolution of American foreign policy, Chomsky identifies some of the crucial and neglected early statements of its goals and framework. One source is the memoranda of the War-Peace Studies Project of the Council on Foreign Relations, which met through World War II, included many senior government officials, and, together with the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Postwar Planning, devised a sort of blueprint for a Pax Americana. The planners made explicit their assumption that a world open to American trade and investment was indispensable to the health of the economy and therefore to the national security. Insuring this openness would require, in their words, “a program of complete rearmament” sufficient to “secure the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by foreign nations that constitutes a threat to the world area essential for the security and economic prosperity of the United States.”

Chomsky then considers the background of the “containment” doctrine proclaimed by Truman in 1947 and reasserted by the National Security Council in 1950 (in its well-known report, NSC 68). He argues that fears of “depression, loss of export markets, and an independent course in Western Europe,” rather than an exaggerated Soviet threat, led planners to propose a vast program of militarization of the economy. For both superpowers, the old Cold War functioned from its outset as “a device for controlling their allies and mobilizing domestic support for the ugly and often costly measures required to impose the desired form of stability on their respective domains.”

And so does the new Cold War. Faced with an economic crisis, the growing independence of Western Europe and Japan, the increasing difficulty of controlling Third World development, and a domestic population afflicted with “Vietnam syndrome” and a “crisis of democracy,” the current American leadership, like its post-World War II predecessors, desperately needs to “scare the hell out of the American people” (Senator Vandenberg, 1946). Once again the international Communist conspiracy is pressed into service. “Soviet expansionism” must be “rolled back”—i.e., indigenous resistance to American economic penetration and control must be crushed. Europe and Japan must bear their “fair share” of the defense burden—i.e., must squander a higher percentage of their resources on waste production, so as not to gain a competitive advantage over the United States. As for the lower classes at home, there is a nice anticipation of Reaganite rhetoric in NSC 68’s warning that “a large measure of sacrifice and discipline will be demanded of the American people,” including “reduction of federal expenditures for purposes other than defense and foreign assistance, if necessary by the deferment of certain desirable programs.”

Chomsky assembles a number of insights into the dynamics of the New Cold War in a remarkable paragraph that sums up the characteristic foreign and “defense” policies of capitalist democracies in economic decline.

Government policy must be designed so that it does not interfere too much with the prerogatives and power of private capital – as it would were the state to become directly involved in the production of useful goods that can be sold for profit – but rather enhances that power. The natural choice, then, is to subsidize the production of waste. In an advanced industrial society, this must be high-technology waste, preferably rapidly obsolescing so that there is a continual need for more. Furthermore, the taxpayer must be induced to foot the bill. There are only so many times that people can be awed by the sight of a man setting foot on the moon, but fear of a powerful enemy can be an effective goad if the propaganda system is functioning smoothly. Furthermore, bribery of the rich—the only device to stimulate investment readily available in a state capitalist society—may lead to more consumption, real estate speculation, investment abroad, and so on, defeating the goal of ‘reindustrialization,’ unless a guaranteed market is provided. What is more, the goods produced should preferably not be a total waste; optimally, they can be employed to help maintain a global order open to investment and exploitation. There is one obvious policy choice that satisfies these and similar requirements, and it is the one regularly undertaken: what is euphemistically called “defense.”

From the striking, nearly superstitious general avoidance of the central role of private economic power in determining state behavior, Chomsky constructs a convincing analogy to organized religion. In his rendition, the most sacred dogma of our state religion is this: “The United States is unique among the nations of past or present history in that its policies are governed by abstract moral principles, such as the Wilsonian ideas of self-determination, human rights, economic welfare, and so on, not by the material interests of groups that actually have domestic power, as is the case in other societies.” And the “secular priesthood” of orthodox political scientists and media commentators labors mightily to preserve the laity from heretical challenges to the faith.

True, our state church admits of a certain pluralism. Podhoretzian fundamentalists froth over the Enemy’s absolute evil, while Lewisian liberals murmur mildly that we, too, may not be wholly righteous. But notwithstanding the contrary claims of the Holy Inquisition (Freedom House, Accuracy in Media, et al.), dissenters usually stay well within bounds, typically ascribing American enormities to such neutral categories as “tragic irony” or policymaker “error” and only rarely questioning the essential virtuousness of American intentions.

The severest test of this doctrinal system was the Indochina war, which propelled many of the faithful into apostasy and left many others in a condition of alarming spiritual torpor known as “Vietnam syndrome.” Several essays in Towards a New Cold War examine the startling feats of casuistry by which the secular priesthood has partially exorcised the Vietnam syndrome, reinterpreting an illegal, brutal, and protracted invasion as mere misplaced idealism and regrettable naiveté. This impressive achievement has prepared the way for future, more cost-effective exercises of American benevolence.

Several other essays deal with Middle Eastern topics: U.S. strategy in the area, the situation of Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories, the fragile hopes for reconciliation between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, and as always, the refraction of these complicated matters through the prism of American ideological institutions. It seems to be extraordinarily difficult for American to write candidly and disinterestedly about the Middle East, and in particular to refrain from equating criticism of Israeli state policy, or advocacy of socialist binationalism, with invidious “questions about the nationhood of the Jews, but of no one else” (Michael Walzer on Chomsky). Chomsky’s outspokenness on this subject has earned him immense ill will, which may go far toward explaining the recent furor over his gesture of support for the inalienable right of an obvious crackpot, Robert Faurisson, to proclaim the Holocaust a “Zionist lie.” Chomsky can be as scathing as his most furious critics. But more often his polemics are systematic and impersonal, more concerned to identify characteristic assumptions and inferences within the enduring consensus, the liberal-to-centrist mainstream, than to demolish exposed and tempting, though intellectually marginal, targets on the right (like William Safire or George Will). The individual books Chomsky dismembers at chapter length—Guenter Lewy’s disgraceful apologetics for American atrocities in Vietnam, Kissinger’s vapid and self-serving memoirs, Saul Bellow’s smug and superficial paean to Israeli society— are shown to epitomize key tenets of state religion, as is Robert Tucker’s recent seminal article in Foreign Affairs (winter 1980-81), “The Purposes of American Power.”

Chomsky’s main case study of journalistic malfeasance is the Free Press’s neglect of the holocaust in East Timor. Since 1975, while trying illegally to annex the island, the Indonesian army has slaughtered around one-third of its population of 600,000. This massacre has been carried out almost entirely with an uninterrupted stream of American weapons, supplied in open violation of American law by the Human Rights (i.e., Carter) Administration. Until early 1980, despite persistent efforts by Chomsky and a few others to publicize this imminent genocide, there was virtually no mention of East Timor in the American press. Stanley Karnow announced in The New York Times that he was “not interested” in the subject. Bernard Nossiter, the Times’s UN correspondent, complained that he found it “rather esoteric.” And until 1979, the Times’s Henry Kamm, who won a Pulitzer Prize for diligently recording the plight of Cambodian refugees, took his information on East Timor from Indonesian generals. Meanwhile, the few international relief officials allowed briefly onto the island (and recently expelled) have described it as “another Cambodia.” Coming as it does at the end of the book, this miserable saga casts the preceding, comparatively abstract discussion of the trahison des clercs in a new and ghastly light.

It may be useful to consider some of the standard distortions and misrepresentations by the political intelligentsia of Chomsky’s harrowing critique. Many of these confusions are conveniently collected in a review by the Atlantic's James Fallows of Towards a New Cold War. According to Fallows and many others, Chomsky ascribes the subservience of American scholarship and media to a vast “unacknowledged conspiracy.” Actually, the word “conspiracy” appears exactly once in Towards a New Cold War, in a paragraph in which the notion is explicitly disavowed. Chomsky invariably uses the word “system” to refer to the ideological institutions, and he sees in their workings nothing mysterious or sinister but merely an instance of Marx’s commonplace observation that in every society, the ideas of the dominant become the dominant ideas.

What of Chomsky’s claim that “foreign policy is guided by the primary commitment to improving the climate for business operations”? Fallows wants to see a smoking gun. He charges that “the text of the book contains virtually no mention of specific corporations, much less an examination of evidence about how, why, and with what success they dominate American foreign policy . . . the sorts of foreign regimes on which they depend, or the circumstances under which they might demand the assistance of American military force.” The text does, however, contain dozens of references on this score to The Political Economy of Human Rights, a recent work by Chomsky in which exactly these topics are discussed with exhaustive documentation through 800 pages, and which was not reviewed by a single major American newspaper, nor by the Atlantic, of which Fallows is a Washington editor.

What really bothers Fallows, and many others, is Chomsky’s “double standard.” Why harp on American misbehavior? Surely the Russians and others are just as bad? Why can’t Chomsky be more even-handed, if only to improve his credibility? In response to such questions, one might point to the absence from this book (and as far as I am aware, from all Chomsky’s writings) of a single instance of apology or equivocation on behalf of any pseudo-socialist regime. But there is another, more morally interesting answer. Consider the fulminations of a Soviet functionary over American atrocities in Indochina or Latin America. What is the real significance of this criticism, when combined with silence about atrocities in the Soviet sphere? It proves the critic a hack. To join the chorus denouncing the official enemies of one’s own state, while slighting the prior moral obligation to resist depredations carried out in one’s own name, with one’s own taxes, subject (in theory) to one’s own control—this is what we despise, at least in others, as hypocrisy.

Finally, Fallows attributes Chomsky’s puzzling arrogance to his isolation “within the confines of a library.” While his documentation is “impressive,” Fallows points out that “the documents are not tempered by the evidence that human witnesses can provide.” So he admonishes Chomsky to “seek out those who drafted the official memoranda,” who will instruct him that “you don’t really understand what we were trying to do.”

This suggestion would be a laughing matter if it did not come from one of the most influential figures in contemporary American journalism. The notion that a critic of the Soviet international behavior ought to “temper” his analyses by seeking out the “evidence” of apparatchiks who “drafted official memoranda” to justify Soviet barbarism would properly evoke ridicule from Fallows, or anyone else. I.F. Stone became America’s finest journalist by refusing to cozy up to those who drafted official memoranda, instead relentlessly confronting them with evidence, unearthed from the obscurer recesses of the public record, that they had lied. Plainly, Stone would not qualify as Washington editor of the Atlantic.

At one point, Fallows laments that Chomsky does not “apply his formidable powers to ask how nations should behave.” And in fact, even Chomsky’s admirers may regret that although he has frequently identified himself as an anarchist and a libertarian socialist, he has rarely allowed himself extended general reflections on the possibilities of individual and social development. The scattered exceptions have been tantalizing, so one welcomes Radical Priorities, which promises to illustrate Chomsky’s “political and social philosophy.”

First published by a tiny anarchist press in Spain, and now published by a tiny anarchist press in Canada, Radical Priorities is an anarchically edited miscellany of essays, lectures, forewords, and rejected op-ed pieces. Of course, Chomsky’s writing is always rewarding—any five pages (such as “The Student Revolt,” a long-since-disappeared preface to an Italian edition of a New Left anthology, and perhaps the finest short comment I’ve seen on the ‘60s) are worth the price of the volume. But one had hoped for a treasure-trove of philosophical speculation about human nature and society, such as appeared briefly in his famous introduction to Daniel Guerin’s Anarchism, in “Language and Freedom” (from For Reasons of State), and in Problems of Knowledge and Freedom.

There is some of this, though not enough for my taste. In only two selections does Chomsky unstring his polemical bow and think positively. “Some Tasks for the Left” argues that a popular revolutionary movement can only result from a general recognition that self-management and cooperation, no less than self-enrichment, are fundamental human needs. And “The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism,” an interview with British economist Peter Jay, offers a suggestive but too brief account of the possible modes of libertarian organization in an advanced industrial society, as well as a defense, against Jay’s skeptical objections, of the plausibility of anarchist social psychology. Apart from this, one must content oneself with Chomsky’s usual devastating critique of American foreign policy and the irresponsibility of intellectuals. Radical Priorities is another valuable collection of Chomsky’s political and social criticism, but it is not a work of “political and social philosophy.” Apparently one cannot accomplish everything.

What, then, has Chomsky accomplished? In Problems of Knowledge and Freedom, the first Russell Lectures, Chomsky wrote: “Among those few who have shown, in this century, the splendor that human life can achieve in individual creativeness and the struggle for liberty, Bertrand Russell holds a place of honor. . . . Russell changed the course of modern thought with his monumental contributions to philosophy and logic, and faced obloquy and imprisonment for his determined opposition to a war that he could not accept as just or necessary. Still to come were [many years] of creative achievement, not only in thought and inquiry but in an unending, unyielding effort to make the world happier and less cruel.” Change “logic” to “linguistics” in this passage, and one may substitute Chomsky’s name for Russell’s throughout.


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