Failed States

by Noam Chomsky (2007)


Though dry, this is a good and fairly updated overview of most of Chomsky’s political positions. He continues to bevital, which is my favorite word for him. I would recommend starting with his interviews or conversations, however, as they’re more accessible and engaging. The most accessible and comprehensive intro to Chomsky, out of the four books I’ve read, is the very lives-up-to-it’s-name Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky.

What was most valuable about this book is that it gives Chomsky’s thoughts on current events up through 2006. He has predictable positions on 9/11 and U.S. involvement in the Middle-East, and this book isn’t as jaw-dropping as other books of his I’ve read because I was politically conscious during all of the events described and had already arrived at many of these conclusions.

The biggest takeaway, unique to this particular book, is the idea that we in the U.S. are no longer actually living in a democracy. Chomsky comparing public opinion polls to actual policy decisions was truly chilling. And really there’s no other conclusion to reach: when a nation’s government make policy decisions that directly controvert the will of the (in many times vast) majority of its citizens, that is no longer a democracy. It doesn’t matter how they do it, whether through media propaganda/manipulation, constitutional circumvention, or just plain brute force (as in totalitarian regimes) — it’s the same practical effect and it’s indisputable. I’m talking about things as basic as universal health care, social security, education, and military spending. As far as I’m concerned it makes Bernie Sanders even more of a hero.

One of the more interesting parts for me personally was reading Chomsky’s thoughts on the retroactive alteration of justifications for the Iraq War. He noted things (usually much more eloquently and precisely) that I had also noticed around the same time. After one specific Bush speech in mid-2007 I even wrote the following in a journal:

It started with the Bush speech that was on CNN over the bar. He was talking about the links between Al Qaeda and Iraq. He tries to use facts to persuade U.S. citizens about why we need to stay in Iraq, and why those who advocate withdrawal are fools and/or cowards. It makes me vacillate between anger and nausea.

First, he’s focusing solely on this supposed ‘link’ between Al Qaeda and Iraq, and ignoring all of the thousands of other problems in Iraq. He accuses the Democrats of denying these links, as if that is anywhere near their main criticism of Bush’s war effort. Politically speaking, he’s re-framing the argument simply so he can claim that Democrats are wrong about something. And at the same time he completely neglects to mention that Al Qaeda didn’t even exist in Iraq until our war there.

He’s trying to link the war against terror directly with the war in Iraq. This, talking about terror and Iraq together right now, is an obvious attempt to conflate the present situation with the situation prior to the war. He’s trying to confuse the public by saying that the enemies in Iraq now are the same enemies that made the attack on 9-11. And they actually are, which is why this speech is brilliant. It’s true, but it’s completely irrelevant, and it will be confused for the entire crux of the problem.

Basically, Bush right now is correct. The terrorists in Iraq right now are part of the same group that perpetrated 9-11. But what does that have to do with the reason we went there originally? Absolutely nothing, because they weren’t there when we went into Iraq! Al Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq until we got there. Bush’s people – the ones responsible for this speech – know very well that right now they’re going to persuade many stupid people that the entire reason for invading Iraq was to fight the current terrorist threat.

No one even thinks about why we went in originally. The truth is that they told us that we had to invade Iraq for three reasons. One of those was their links with bin Laden – which were always left sort of vague and nebulous, and which were later proven nonexistent. They presented it very much like this speech right now, with a lot of vague logic and declarations of ‘fact’ that could easily be misunderstood or misapplied by the majority of the ignorant audience. The second reason was that they knew there were weapons – which we of course never uncovered. And the third reason was that Saddam was a bad man, a fact that only really bothered us after 9-11.

The level of propaganda is simply incredible! They are fully returning to their previous position that we had to invade Iraq to fight terrorism, a position which was soundly refuted a few years ago. But on top of that, they are dishonestly and deliberately trying to confuse the effect of our invasion – an effect for which we are directly responsible – with the reason for initiating it in the first place. Can no one else see this?

In other words, not only do they return to old trusty Reason #1 (Iraq = Terrorism = 9-11 evildoers), but they are now saying that the results of our invasion – the fact that Al Qaeda can now be found in Iraq, when they couldn’t before we started this war – they’re saying that this is the reason we went there to begin with.

The media’s reaction to the speech starts, and it’s even more incredible. The Heritage Foundation spokesman actually just admitted what I’ve been saying, that we caused this increase of terrorism in Iraq, the increase that Bush used as our reason for staying in Iraq. Then he tried to excuse it by saying, ‘It would have occurred wherever we were fighting’!

“And if we weren’t fighting anywhere?” is the logical follow-up to his sad excuse.

And all of the newscasters are confused about the purpose and timing of the speech. Now I’m not the most highly-paid political consultant around, but it’s fairly obvious that Bush is trying to re-frame the entire war effort in terms of terror, and not in terms of Iraqi stability. He didn’t even mention ‘stability.’ Even when he talked about ‘complete victory’ he didn’t say what that would look like. This speech marks a decisive moment in the conflict in which we are very clearly and concretely lowering our expectations for success. It’s also a response to recent critics: we can’t pull out while there’s such terrorism to fight!

So now we’ve arrived at the completely absurd situation in which we are staying in Iraq to fight the terrorism that we created by immorally going to Iraq in the first place. Who ever said that Orwell and Heller were fiction writers? Unbelievable.

Of course the most disturbing part is the incredible amount of cynicism that the Republicans are displaying, by deliberately trying to confuse their ignorant public. They accuse liberals of being ‘elitist’ when we mention this, that the public is largely ignorant of the sophisticated political techniques in Washington. But the reality is that the Republicans agree completely with the liberals on the situation. They know their constituents are poor ignorant bastards, they’re just too shrewd to say it. And then they go one worse than the liberals by consciously exploiting that ignorance for their political gain. Incredible. And it works — that’s the worst part.

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