The New York Times, June 25, 2006
This latest philippic from Noam Chomsky sets out to overturn every belief about their country Americans hold dear. The self-image of the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy, lighting the way for the rest of the world, is a lie, Chomsky says, and it always has been. "Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy" aims to expose the rot of the shining city on a hill, from its foundations to its steeples.
At the book's center is the avowed American mission to spread democracy throughout the world. Chomsky concedes that, rhetorically at least, this has been the nation's goal since Woodrow Wilson, but he insists the words are utterly at odds with American deeds. In its many foreign interventions, Washington has acted to frustrate the will of the people, often by supporting those engaged in the most chilling violence. The United States has overthrown democratic governments in Iran, Chile, Guatemala "and a long list of others." Elsewhere it has paid lip service to procedural democracy while doing all it could to rig the outcome. There is, Chomsky says, a "rational consistency" to this inconsistency between words and actions. The record shows that the United States does indeed back democracy abroad — "if and only if it is consistent with strategic and economic interests."
These are not, Chomsky insists, the interests of the American people, but of the corporate elite that dominates the country and its policy making. For, he says, the United States is not a democracy, if that word is reserved for a society where the people's will is done.
Take health care. Chomsky has the data to show that the American system is economically inefficient, much costlier than more socialized models abroad and deeply unpopular with a majority of Americans, who are ready to pay for increased government intervention even if that means higher taxes. That democratic majority remains unheard, however, because "the pharmaceutical and financial industries and other private powers are strongly opposed." That is why the mainstream news media, a perennial Chomsky target, say publicly funded health care lacks political support: the majority might back it, but not the people who count.
Chomsky employs the same linguistic deconstruction for media definitions of prosperity. The experts may say the economy is healthy, as it is for the top 1 percent, whose wealth rose by 42 percent from 1983 to 1998. But it is not healthy for the majority, whose wages have stagnated or declined in real terms, nor for those going hungry in America because they cannot afford to buy food.
Much of this will be familiar to veteran Chomsky readers, but in this book he supplies a new twist. What, he asks, is a failed state? It is one that fails "to provide security for the population, to guarantee rights at home or abroad, or to maintain functioning (not merely formal) democratic institutions." On that definition, Chomsky argues, the United States is the world's biggest failed state. This sounds like a hyperbolic charge, ludicrously overblown — but he goes far toward substantiating it. He is especially strong on pointing up Washington's woeful efforts to protect Americans from terror attacks, in one instance lavishing more resources on the imaginary threat from Cuba than on the all-too-real menace of Al Qaeda.
And if a rogue state is defined by its defiance of international law, then the United States, Chomsky says, has long been the rogues' rogue. It has ignored the Geneva Conventions by its treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo and of Iraqi civilians in Falluja; violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by its development of new weapons when it should be making good-faith efforts to get rid of the old ones; flouted the United Nations Charter, which allows the use of force only when the "necessity of self-defense" is "instant" and "overwhelming," standards hardly met by the 2003 invasion of Iraq; and defied the World Court, which in the 1980's held Washington guilty of "unlawful use of force" against Nicaragua, a ruling the United States simply rejected. Scholars like to speak of American exceptionalism, but with Chomsky the phrase takes on new meaning: America exempts itself from the rules it demands for everyone else. This is not a double standard, but flows from what Chomsky, quoting Adam Smith, calls the single standard: the "vile maxim of the masters of mankind: . . . All for ourselves, and nothing for other people."
Throughout "Failed States" Chomsky writes in this vein of fierce excoriation. No one is exempt, according to him. The whole system is rotten, including traditional liberal heroes. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy are all faulted for their pursuit of international dominance, from Roosevelt's plans to firebomb Japanese cities more than a year before Pearl Harbor to Kennedy's war in Vietnam. Even the framers of the Constitution are condemned. Chomsky disapprovingly quotes James Madison's insistence that the new Republic should "protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." He doesn't much like The New York Times either.
If there is a crumb of comfort for his readers, it is this: Americans are not a uniquely evil people. On the contrary, imperialists throughout history have behaved in the same way, from the Greeks to the British, always telling themselves they were driven by noble purpose — even as their elites wreaked havoc for their own material gain.
There are flaws in this book. It is dense, with almost every paragraph broken up by extensive quotations. And it is unrelenting, the invective interrupted only by the occasional flash of bitter wit. Like any polemicist, Chomsky is selective in his material: for example, he cites rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court that have injured Palestinians rights, but ignores those that have respected them.
Too often Chomsky fails to cast those outside the United States as active moral agents in their own right. He argues, with justification, that the American invasion of Iraq has unleashed a wave of terrorism in that country — but he has little interest in the bombers and beheaders themselves. Their actions are merely the inevitable products of decisions taken in Washington. He is also too airily dismissive of liberal interventionists, those who would like to see American power deployed to thwart genocide; in Chomsky's eyes, they are mere patsies for imperialism.
Similarly, his view of politics can be too mechanistic; sometimes he writes as if whole national debates are mere staged distractions, planned by the powers that be. And while he spends 260-odd pages presenting his critique, he offers only two paragraphs of solutions (an imbalance, it should be said, he is aware of).
Still, maybe it's sufficient for a prophet to tell the people they are in a wilderness; he shouldn't be expected to point the exact way out. Chomsky's ambitions, after all, are high enough. It's hard to imagine any American reading this book and not seeing his country in a new, and deeply troubling, light.