Us humans pride ourselves on our intelligence. We certainly use our brains differently to all other animals, often in unusual and surprising ways. Does being clever make it likely that human beings as a species will survive for a long time? Far from it, Chomsky suggests.
The problem is that we look at the world through a set of beliefs and values that prevent us acting in our own long term interests. The US, the world’s most powerful country, is far more interested in projecting its power across the globe than in tackling problems like global warming and falling oil reserves. Where goals conflict, it is the pursuit of power that wins out. It has to be said, that Chomsky himself is more interested in describing the role of the US as a global powerhouse than in what it has or could have done to ensure the survival of the human race.In fact the biggest part of the book is an extended digression into how US power works. But what a splendid digression it is. We are treated to a detailed review of how the US has created and ruled its extended informal empire, especially since the Second World War. The subheading – America’s Quest for Global Dominance – is a better description. I think it was probably added after the book had been finished.
Since overtaking Britain economically in the 1870s the US has steadily played a bigger and bigger role in the world. It almost always works by establishing client governments – often military dictatorships but sometimes democracies. This process was greatly accelerated after the Second World War. Today its military expenditure is as much as the next 15 countries added together. No country remotely approaches it in military power and only Russia has ever even tried to keep up. The Soviet Union collapsed largely because its economy was not equal to matching the huge expenditure that the Americans lavished on the arms race. Since the end of the Cold War America, has extended its influence to almost the whole world. This version of recent history may not be one that you immediately recognise, but Chomsky always has a unique take even on familiar events. Take the Cuban missile crisis for example. Most of us know that the world came very close to a nuclear war in 1962. Just how close was only revealed 40 years later. A Russian officer countermanded a submarine’s orders to launch its nuclear missiles at the last minute. But Chomsky’s attention is drawn by what he calls the Adlai Stevenson moment. In 1962 Stevenson, the US envoy to the United Nations, dramatically revealed aerial photographs proving that the Russians were building a missile base in Cuba despite their denials.
Why, Chomsky ponders, was there no similar moment the year before when America actually stationed the Jupiter missiles in Turkey? These missiles posed a direct threat to the Soviet Union, much like the base on Cuba would to the US.What would an impartial observer from Mars make of it, Chomsky wonders? Russia was the weaker of the two superpowers even then. America had some 5,000 missiles capable of being launched against Russia. Russia had only around 300. There were good reasons for Russia’s weakness and for why it might feel threatened. It had been invaded by Germany twice in the preceding 50 years. On the second occasion it had nearly been overwhelmed. The Germans had been rearmed by the US and were now in an alliance with them against the Russians. The newly deployed missiles in Turkey gave the Americans the ability to strike directly at Russian cities.
A Russian base in Cuba barely altered the balance of power between the two sides. And yet President Kennedy was willing to push the world to the brink of war risking a huge death toll and an unknowable degree of environmental destruction in response to a tiny enhancement of Russia’s position. Kruschev, of course, was just as prepared as his opponent to put the world at risk for a marginal advantage. What would our Martian have made of it?
The people who would have come off worst in an all out nuclear exchange were the populations of Western Europe. Some estimates of the destructive capacity of the nuclear arsenal suggested that the entire population on the continent would have been killed. What role did their governments play in the crisis? None at all. They were not consulted or even informed. British Prime Minister Harold McMillan had to rely on British intelligence to know what was going on. The nature of the alliance between America and its friends in Europe could not be made clearer. It wasn’t and isn’t an alliance of equals.
The scope of American power is global, but aside from being prepared to sacrifice the lives of all its inhabitants in a crisis, it is exerted in a fairly benevolent way in Europe. Elsewhere it is a bit more forceful. South America is cowed by covert operations of sabotage and politically motivated killings. The covert operations in Nicaragua in particular are described in great detail. After the war Japan was rehabilitated to control South East Asia while the region was organised to fit in with US plans. North Korea might be a suitable target of US military action. It has nothing of any value and famously possesses a nuclear weapon. But if a pipeline were needed to get oil to the industrial areas to the south, it might need to be dealt with. The overall picture is the world being shaped from Washington along lines that suit the interests of its elite.The biggest plum in the world is control of the huge oil fields of the Middle East. Here control is exerted by support of corrupt dictatorial local regimes and alliances with local military powers Israel and Turkey. Israel plays the role of regional cop on the beat. It can defend US interests with force when necessary. As Chomsky points out, this is the state in the region that unquestionably does have access to weapons of mass destruction. The wars in Iraq get particular attention, especially the second one. The motivation for the invasion is to prevent the population of Iraq getting control of their oil reserves and to establish a military presence in the world’s largest oil producing region. We all like to have an enemy, and with the Soviet Union disposed of, for the US the war on terror is the new project. Terrorism is an evil to be conquered, and the war on it is a just war. Nobody would disagree with that. Well, Chomsky might. He points out that Americans apply different standards to themselves to those they expect of others. America reserves the right to strike first in anticipation of the aggression of potential opponents.
Digging up definitions of terrorism from the US and UK governments, Chomsky points out that many of the activities of the US government, particularly in South America, fit the definition. One easy success in the war on terrorism would be to cease funding it he notes sardonically. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, it is often said. Not so. It is a weapon of the powerful, like all the others. Does terrorism justify a pre-emptive strike to prevent something worse happening? Well if it does then countries like Cuba and Nicaragua that have been on the receiving end of US covert operations have the right of a pre-emptive strike on Washington.One of the main theatres for the war on terror is the media. Chomsky contrasts the way similar acts are reported depending on who has committed them. Some news stories just stick in the memory. I can still remember being sickened by the news story in 1985 about the cruise ship the Achille Lauro. It was taken over by a group of Palestinian terrorists who threw an elderly disabled passenger overboard in his wheelchair. Somehow this almost casual act of brutality is particularly shocking and memorable.
But there was much less coverage of the discovery of a mangled wheelchair complete with a white flag in the wreck of the Janine refugee camp in 2003. British journalists found the story behind it. The disabled Palestinian had been shot by Israeli troops, while trying to surrender then crushed by a tank. I am pretty sure I never heard that story before reading it in this book. It is easy to ignore news stories about massacres and atrocities when they are abstract statistics. It is only when you hear the human stories involved that your natural sympathies are aroused. The media can report facts with complete accuracy, but still mislead by the different ways the two sides are treated. To illustrate the difference, Chomsky considers how different the events surrounding the Janine massacre would sound if it were carried out by Syria on Israel.It’s a useful exercise. The rights and wrongs of a particular conflict are often pretty much a matter of perspective or opinion. But we all respond to particular stories of human suffering. We hear a lot about the very real security problems that Israelis suffer from. We hear a lot less about the much greater security problems that the Palestinians suffer from.
Reading this book is a bit like listening to a conspiracy theorist in a pub. But with the difference that he really does know what he is talking about. Chomsky is a scientist and is good at offering analysis. He must also spend a huge amount of time researching. The range of facts he marshals and sources he quotes are amazing. On top of this, the book comes with an unusual endorsement. It was recommended by the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, in a speech to the UN General Assembly in 2006. It instantly raced to the top of the Amazon charts. Or as the New York Times headline put it “U.S. Best Seller, Thanks to Rave by Latin Leftist”. Chavez as a head of state must know a thing or two about the way international politics works. If he finds it believable, then maybe Chomsky is on the right track.
It was written in 2003 and is very much of its time. The enormous detail given to the run up to the Iraq war would have been topical when it was written but now that the war is history it really has undue prominence. But despite this I think it will continue to be read for many years to come. It is just such a good summary of a particular era that future scholars will find it very helpful. But reading it now, the overall impression created is of the power of the United States. If the Americans succeed in getting weapons in space it will be even greater. Any point on the globe could be attacked without warning and with no possibility of defence. Is there any power that can stop them?
Chomsky suggests that there is a second superpower. Public opinion is the counterweight to the political and military elite. In what feels very much like the obligatory happy ending at the end of a Victorian potboiler, Chomsky talks up the strength of this in his conclusion. His optimism did not convince me, and I don’t think it convinced him. There isn’t much in the preceding pages that suggests that this second superpower has anything like the strength of the actual superpower.Since it was written we have had the credit crunch.
Will America be able to maintain its huge defence expenditures in the wake of the economic ramifications of what has happened on Wall Street. It isn’t yet clear, not to me at any rate. The strength of the US is so well founded it is very hard to imagine it losing its pre-eminent position. But history is a fickle mistress. A hundred years ago it would have seemed far fetched to suggest that Great Britain would lose virtually the whole of its empire in less than fifty years. The ultimate irony would be if Chomsky’s book moves on from inducing Latin Leftists with rage and indignation to being read by former neocons with nostalgia for the days when the US really did have things stitched up.