01November2014

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NOAM CHOMSKY RESPONDS TO JOHANN HARI

We received a second response from Johann Hari on November 29:

Dear David and David,

I've been moping in bed with 'flu all day and just had an amicable row with a friend who read your alert and basically agrees with it. Some interesting points emerged from our discussion of it (and some e-mail exchanges with some of your readers), so I thought I'd add them to my previous e-mail if I may.

I realise that my answer to your question about when US foreign policy towards the Middle East changed was somewhat cursory. I think there is a growing realisation among US elites since September 11th that the policy of propping up tyrannies in the Middle East has led to disaster for America.

Of course they are not suddenly worried about Arab lives in some purely altruistic sense. Rather, they have developed a new sense of enlightened self-interest, where America will only become safe if the Middle East undergoes a bourgeois democratic revolution and Arab grievances can find outlets within democratic processes.

Read Bush's Guild Hall speech: it is a fairly candid statement of that, and as close to a retraction and apology for US foreign policy in the region for the last forty years. (Of course, like you, I would like to see the criminals who enacted that policy - Henry Kissinger at the forefront, but also Bush's own father and countless others - tried. We should keep arguing for that, forlorn though it may be; but that should not blind us to other positive developments). Of course there is a danger in taking what politicians with an abysmal history of lying say at face value. We will have ample opportunity to see if Bush is this time telling the truth.

On a separate but related point, you say: "what 'we' need [if we are to justify any war on humanitarian grounds] is a credible track record of compassionate, humanitarian intervention." I believe that we are developing that track-record. The Kosovo war - which you see as part of a devilish plot - would be my first example, but since that is contentious, let us leave it aside. Let's look at Sierra Leone. Noam Chomsky admitted to me at a New Statesman lunch that this was 'probably' a sincere humanitarian intervention, although he did add, "that's probably because I haven't looked into it too closely." He hasn't looked into it, I fear, because he suspects that if he did it would displease his fan base and undermine his thesis that Western powers invariably (as opposed to often, as I believe) act in line with a rapacious imperialism.

Sierra Leone was - to summarise crudely, albeit in a way that nobody to my knowledge disputes - a desperately poor country whose democracy was about to be liquidated by a gang of hand-chopping thugs. Only intervention from the British army prevented it descending into civil war, with all the attendant human miseries. Britain had no strategic or financial interest in that devastated country. Blair did it for the same reason he has dedicated so much energy to the Northern Ireland peace process: because he believed it would make the world a better place. Is this not humanitarian intervention? And if you concede that Blair can act in a humanitarian way at least once, doesn't that undermine your position that his government is obviously reprehensible in everything it does? Does it undermine your hero Harold Pinter, who bizarrely claimed on the Today programme that Blair bombed Kosovo because "he enjoys killing children"?

Onto another point. You ask why I did not agitate for the ending of sanctions, a course that the Iraqi people clearly wanted throughout the nineties: a proper and important question. As I explained in my earlier message, the primary responsibility for the deaths caused by sanctions lie with Saddam Hussein, because the same sanctions did not cause anything like the same number of deaths in Northern Iraq, where Saddam's power (mercifully) did not extend. However, my position was simple, and it was firmly opposed to sanctions. Sanctions should not have been implemented, because the whole policy of 'containment' - locking a dictator in a box along with the Iraqi people, where he could merrily butcher them - was heinous.

Your alternative to sanctions was to leave Saddam in place and hope that the battered, tyrannised Iraqi people could somehow find a way to break the lock of a modern totalitarian state and overthrow him. I believe that this course would have resulted in far, far more deaths than the current invasion: look at how many people were slaughtered in just one uprising, in 1991. My alternative to sanctions was regime change. We both wanted them to end; it was only our tactics that differed.

There is a wider disagreement between us concerning the attitude towards power that we on the left should adopt. You seem to believe - I hope this is a fair précis - that the holders of power in our world, even in advanced democracies (which are mere husks of democracy in your telling), are depraved perpetrators of genocide and mass murder, utterly contemptible and beyond redemption. The only possible course decent people can adopt is to smash this power structure and begin the long course of building a new one. To engage those with power, to try to make it more decent and to coax it to do good things, is, at best, a fool's errand, and at worst an attempt to humanise a monster. The only decent thing that can be done with power as it is currently constituted is to oppose it entirely and to agitate for a better world.

I have wrestled with this view. I do not want to spend my life putting a humanitarian veneer on horrendous policies, and there are days - usually when Donald Rumsfeld gives a press conference - when I wonder if that is what I am doing, and whether you are right. That is why I welcome your alert, even though it obviously isn't pleasant to be harshly criticised: anybody with a conscience should have to examine their relationship to power, and justify themselves.

My own attitude to power is that we should formulate our political philosophies independently, and support governments when they accord with them and oppose them when they do not. I hope you will accept that this is what I try to do. Whether or not George Bush was in favour of overthrowing Saddam, I was on the side of the Iraqi people, backing the end of his tyranny. Whether or not Tony Blair is in favour of gay rights (mercifully, he is), rights for refugees (appallingly, he most certainly is not), I hold to my independent position. Whatever Bush and Blair say, I will support (in whatever pathetically small way I can through my column) the people of Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and (yes) Uzbekistan against the tyrants who repress them. If Bush and Blair act to end their tyrannies - which would require a very substantial reversal when it comes to Uzbekistan - then I will welcome them.

I can see why you are tempted to see any support for the recent war as cow-towing to power. Bluntly, in the case of many journalists, it was. Establishment arse-lickers like William Rees-Mogg (who wrote a preposterous piece in the Times the other day about how America "always" supports democracies) like the Downing Street invites and the places on corporate boards. But can't you see there is a substantial difference between the Rees-Moggs, who suddenly discover a concern for Iraqi democracy when it is convenient, and people like Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens, who were in favour of the overthrow of Saddam long before any powerful person thought it prudent, or for that matter David Aaronovitch, who was advocating an invasion when the idea seemed preposterous years ago?

Our positions must be independent of those with power. I fear that those of your heroes John Pilger and Noam Chomsky is determined by power just as simplistically as the likes of Rees-Mogg, because where he will always snap into line with the US government, they will oppose it, not matter what it does. So Pilger heroically backed the East Timorese liberation movement for decades, but then then, when the US very belatedly changed its policy and Pilger's East Timorese friends thanked the heavens, he opposed that too! (I recommend Francis Wheen's excellent forthcoming book for documentation of all this, along with clear accounts of Noam Chomsky's horrifying blindness to the genocide in Cambodia).

So: no Rees-Mogg line in defence of power, no Pilger line opposed to it; independent principles, which we hold those with power to. Sierra Leone is evidence that great good can happen within existing power-structures. If your apparent position - oppose all that the existing power structure does - had been adopted in Sierra Leone, we would have been lobbying in effect for the liquidation of a very fragile African democracy and its descent into becoming a failed state, with many horrific deaths. That is not a political position I am comfortable with. If we wait for the existing power-structures of the world to be torn down before we advocate any positive action, there will be an awful lot more countries like Sierra Leone ripped to shreds before we're done.

Anyway, I have written far more than I intended, and my tissues have turned into a soggy mush that cannot absorb any more mucus no matter how hard I try, so I'll leave this here until your response, if that's okay.

Hope you are well,

Yours sincerely,

Johann

Dear Johann

Even by the standard of the responses we've received from mainstream journalists your arguments are remarkable.

You write, accurately, that your answer to the question of when US foreign policy in the Middle East became guided by "enlightened self-interest" was "somewhat cursory". You explain: "I think there is a growing realisation among US elites since September 11th that the policy of propping up tyrannies in the Middle East has led to disaster for America."

The oil companies, arms manufacturers, indeed much of corporate America, might have something to say about that. No matter, let's take a look at your evidence.

But what is so remarkable is that there is none - your non-cursory evidence supporting this extraordinary claim consists, quite literally, of a speech by George Bush at the Guild Hall!

You do add that on "a separate but related point" there is a growing track-record of humanitarian intervention, as indicated by the actions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone (we'll return to these, and your gross misrepresentation of Chomsky's position below). But as these took place in 1999 and 2000, respectively, they of course cannot support your non-cursory explanation relating to September 11, which thus continues to rely on one speech by Bush.

Your comment on how America understands it "will only become safe if the Middle East undergoes a bourgeois democratic revolution" reeks of the unthinking arrogance of so many media commentators - of course the United States should be supported in asserting its moral and legal right to promote "democratic revolution" wherever it pleases. Let the world's lone superpower overturn whichever government it chooses through mass violence out of - what else? - "self-defence".

The US writer Edward Herman has been studying US foreign policy in great depth and with great intelligence for decades. We thought it would be interesting to see what he made of your argument. This was his response:

"[Hari's] suggestion that US policy in the Middle East is geared to making America 'safe' is comical - did he swallow the notion that Saddam, with or without WMD, could pose a real security threat to the US? If safety is not the criterion, how about domination of oil and control and projection of power so openly announced by the Bush team in 1992 and later? Also the protection of  Sharon and ethnic cleansing in Palestine. I like his phrase 'only if Arab grievances can find outlets within democratic processes'! No suggestion that they might have grievances from US supported massive ethnic cleansing in favor of settlers, which is so god-damned obvious as a grievance and crime." (Email to Media Lens, November 29, 2003)

You write:

"Of course there is a danger in taking what politicians with an abysmal history of lying say at face value. We will have ample opportunity to see if Bush is this time telling the truth."

There is indeed a danger - the tens of thousands of Iraqi dead from the latest war you supported will +not+ have ample opportunity to see if Bush is telling the truth. The idea that, based on zero evidence, we should sit back while Bush wages war around the world and see if "this time", at last, great power is finally telling the truth is too absurd even to discuss.

While you are waiting and seeing, even establishment foreign policy analysts like Samuel Huntington are warning that "America's imperial ambition" is a threat to everyone, the United States included (Foreign Affairs, March-April, 1999). Robert Jervis also writes in Foreign Affairs of how the Bush administration has one aim: "unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority". (Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2001)

You say that the war on Iraq is part of a new humanitarian trend rooted in Bush's recognition that "we should not tolerate oppression for the sake of stability". And yet UN resolution 1441, used by the Bush administration to prepare the way for war, was rammed through the Security Council by senior US officials whose job was "to urge leaders to vote with the United States on Iraq or risk 'paying a heavy price'." (Dafna Linzer, Boston Globe, February 24, 2003), with the fate of Yemen after the 1991 Gulf War doubtless on everyone's minds. Noam Chomsky makes the obvious point:

"The support is in fact submission; signers understood what the alternative would be. In systems of law that are intended to be taken seriously, coerced acquiescence is invalid. In international affairs, however, it is honoured as diplomacy." (Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Routledge, 2003, p.36)

You assert that we see the Kosovo war "as part of a devilish plot". This, again, hardly merits comment.

You write:

"Noam Chomsky admitted to me at a New Statesman lunch that this was 'probably' a sincere humanitarian intervention, although he did add, 'that's probably because I haven't looked into it too closely.' He hasn't looked into it, I fear, because he suspects that if he did it would displease his fan base and undermine his thesis that Western powers invariably (as opposed to often, as I believe) act in line with a rapacious imperialism."

Your first sentence struck us as deeply implausible. Chomsky has repeatedly stated that he believes it is quite possible that there has not in all history been an example of humanitarian state intervention. We suspected he was trying to make a typically honest point to you about the need to actually study issues rather than rushing to judgement. We asked Chomsky to clarify his position. This was his response:

"I have no idea whether I met him at the lunch, but I certainly didn't 'admit' anything of the sort.  Rather, I stated that Britain in Sierra Leone might be an authentic example of humanitarian intervention. And there was no 'although'; another flight of the Hari imagination.  Rather, I stated that I hadn't looked into it more closely.  The reasons are not his silly inventions -- which tell us a lot about him; more below -- but rather a moral truism, that I have repeated to the point of boredom, and did again at the lunch: a person is responsible for the anticipated consequences of his or her own acts, and if capable if comprehending moral truisms, will therefore focus finite energy and attention on them -- +focus+, which does not mean, as the subservient intellectuals like to pretend, keep to them exclusively.

"Of course, I would not expect him to understand the moral truism that I repeated, once again, at the lunch.  Nor will he ever understand it, I suppose, any more than it could be understood by his Stalinist counterparts.  As anyone familiar with Russia in the old days knows, the loyal commissars could never understand -- or at least pretended not to understand -- why Soviet dissidents concentrated on the actions of Russia, not someone else's.  And their Western mimics, like Hari, cannot understand why I concentrate on actions of the US, and he should concentrate on actions of England.  Of course, I don't suggest a comparison.  He is far more depraved than his models, who could at least plead fear for their conformity to power, and who had far less responsibility for the actions of their states than he and I have -- REPEAT, FAR LESS for obvious reasons, a deeply significant fact, but another one that he will never comprehend, I presume.

"Those who do understand moral truisms and elementary facts will understand at once why, in a life with finite time and energy, I wouldn't undertake the kind of research project about Britain in Sierra Leone than I do about issues for which I share responsibility, which I can influence, and which therefore should take priority.  That would be true even if I had not again explained the obvious, in monosyllables, at that lunch.  The fact that he would resort to these idiotic fabrications tells us a lot about him; even more, perhaps, than his apparent utter inability to comprehend moral truisms." (Email to Media Lens, November 29, 2003)

Your response to these comments on your website is revealing:

"I think that rant speaks for itself really." (www.johannhari.com)

Your suggestion that someone as honest and rational as Chomsky would not look too closely at an issue because it might "displease his fan base and undermine his thesis" reveals your ignorance of his work. The whole point about Chomsky is that he focuses on precisely the presumed strongest examples testing his arguments - such as the idea that Watergate demonstrates the independence of the press, that the Kosovo intervention indicates a "new humanitarianism" - to show the true scale of state-corporate lying and deceit.

You say of Britain's intervention in Sierra Leone: "Blair did it for the same reason he has dedicated so much energy to the Northern Ireland peace process: because he believed it would make the world a better place. Is this not humanitarian intervention?"

Again, naturally, no evidence is required - it's enough just to say it. British historian Mark Curtis has unearthed remarkable evidence in released government documents that reveal the British motivation for interventions in the Third World since 1945. His work - in particular The Ambiguities Of Power (Zed Books, 1995) and Web Of Deceit (Vintage, 2003) - are must-read books. We asked Curtis what he thought of your analysis of the interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone:

"I have looked through the formerly secret government files on numerous past British military interventions and if there is one thing that is clear, it is that the publicly stated reasons for intervention are never the real ones. In the case of British Guiana in 1953, for example, when British troops were sent to remove a democratically-elected government, the government told Parliament it was intervening to stop the Guianan government acting as a stooge of Moscow; the files reveal, however, that British planners were really concerned about the Guianan government threatening British business interests. In Malaya in the 1950s, the official reasons for intervention - repeated for a decade - were to prevent "communism terrorism"; the files, however, show that planners saw the war primarily as "in defence of [the] rubber industry", which British business interests effectively controlled. These are just two examples.

"Coming closer to the Blair government and Sierra Leone, it should be remembered that the intervention took place only a few months after the bombing of Yugoslavia. This was again trumpeted - with the support of the entire mainstream media - as an humanitarian intervention to save the lives of thousands of Kosovans. Yet the record makes clear that it was following the NATO bombing that the worst humanitarian catastrophe ensued; before, human rights abuses were horrific, certainly, but on far lower scale than the Foreign Office was putting out, and indeed in the context of a civil war between the Belgrade government and the KLA. Only when the NATO bombing started were huge numbers of people pushed over the borders.

"This is not to excuse Milosevic for gross horrors; it is simply to state the facts. And indeed, Blair and Clinton stated quite openly what is a more plausible reason for their bombing than humanitarian intervention - the "credibility" of NATO. That, around the 50th anniversary of NATO, the US and UK could not let Milosevic undermine the Alliance. I also think other factors were at play - such as forcing Milosevic's removal at a time when NATO and the EU wanted to expand eastwards.

"On Sierra Leone, the safest thing to say is that when we see the declassified files in 30 years, I suggest we will see a different story than that spun by Blair's propagandists and their allies in the mainstream media. If we look for plausible reasons for the intervention, the immediate one is the restoration of a pro-British government, which had of course been overthrown. This followed, it should be remembered, the coup in neighbouring Gambia, which also overthrew a very long-standing British ally, virtually a puppet. The major country in the region is of course Nigeria. I am just looking through the declassified files on the civil war there in the late 1960s - they reveal very clearly the UK's support for the Lagos government and the primacy of British oil interests, which dictated British then, and we can assume also now.

"This is the UK's prize in the region, along with the stability needing to be provided by pro-British governments. This is also in the context of ongoing rivalry between France and the UK in the region. I think London was worried that the instability/conflict in the area, based as they see it around Liberia, was threatening pro-British governments, the wider British role in the region and possibly Nigeria itself.

"I also think an additional factor, related to this, was the need to demonstrate British power in this region - to show that it was still capable of defending its interests through military force, a similar issue, indeed, to 'credibility'. This is also similar to some of France's concerns in the region. This is not to say that the intervention has not had some benign effects - the opposition RUF were clearly entirely gruesome. But to argue that humanitarian reasons were primary in deciding Whitehall to act is another thing altogether.

"Nigeria is a good example of how propping up favoured governments in the region works against West Africans interests - British oil companies and Nigerian elites have been bleeding ordinary Nigerians dry for decades. They have seen hardly any of the benefits of oil revenues and many have become poorer. We should not expect a pro-British government in Sierra Leone to deliver benefits for people over the long term; this would simply be defying history.

"It is typical that the mainstream media takes at face value, and accepts, the governments arguments for intervention in Sierra Leone, as elsewhere - then, discussion merely takes place around whether the government is promoting the right tactics to achieve its noble purposes, based on its own propaganda. In the light of what is publicly known about the government's propaganda strategy on Iraq, this role of the media is really remarkable, a tremendous elite achievement in democratic society." (Email to Media Lens, December 2, 2003)

It's important that we add Chomsky's response to your reference to his "horrifying blindness to the genocide in Cambodia". We can only imagine that you have not read Chomsky and Herman's work on the issue - particularly The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volumes 1 and 2 (South End Press, 1979), or the responses to it, all of which have been comprehensively rebutted.

Chomsky writes:

"Very interesting.  Neither he [Hari], nor anyone, has found even a misplaced comma in what Ed [Herman] and I wrote about Cambodia (I wrote nothing relevant of my own), which of course bitterly and prominently condemned the atrocities, suggested that US intelligence was probably the most reliable source (as proved to be the case in retrospect; we were probably the only ones to cite them), but argued that one should try to tell the truth about the horrifying atrocities, not concoct lies of a kind that would have made Stalin and Goebbels gasp -- which is no exaggeration.

"As noted, not the slightest error, or hint of an error, has ever been unearthed.  Ask Hari to produce one, instead of just following his crowd in the obligatory tantrum.  The tantrum is extremely revealing.  We were challenging the right to lie in service to the holy state, and that is intolerable.  Hence the reactions in which Hari joins, possibly in total ignorance in his case, just repeating what he's heard at some dinner party.

"There is another point, which takes the intelligence of a ten-year old to understand, so I rarely bother with it.  In our two volumes, Ed and I were comparing the reaction to atrocities, depending on the source and the way domestic power wanted them to be perceived.  Our two prime examples were East Timor and Cambodia, a very good test case as anyone familiar with the facts is aware, and as we showed in detail.  We described the atrocities as comparable in scale and character, as was true (bending over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to the US-UK and their educated classes).

"The prime difference was that in one case the US-UK bore direct responsibility, and were in fact carrying forward their decisive support for the crimes at the very moment we wrote, while in the other case the crimes could be blamed on an official enemy and could also be exploited to justify further US-UK crimes (as they were, as we also have documented).  The difference in treatment was dramatic.  Massive lying in both cases, but in opposite directions, going well beyond what we predicted.

"The revelation of the subservience of intellectuals to power in the case of Cambodia has elicited a huge mountain of tantrums (to which Hari adds his toothpick) -- though, as noted, not a particle of evidence or argument to support any of the hysterical charges, just more lying (as we've also reviewed).  The chapter on East Timor has almost never been mentioned, though by any moral standards it was vastly more important, since what we revealed there were ongoing crimes, for which we share enormous responsibility.  You might check, for example, to see what Hari wrote about the fact that his hands are dripping with blood of Timorese, right up to late September 1999, and what he has written about the comparable crimes of the official enemy.  That would tell us a lot about whether the comparison to Stalinist commissars is fair -- to the commissars.

"Here's the point of logic, admittedly beyond the capacity of deeply indoctrinated Western intellectuals to understand.  We described the two crimes as comparable.  Therefore, those who claim (like Hari) that we were downplaying the crimes of Pol Pot are themselves downplaying their own crimes in East Timor.  That's elementary logic.  And the conclusion is also obvious.  To deny one's own ongoing crimes is vastly more disgraceful than denying the crimes of someone else.  Hence Hari is, once again, declaring that he falls well below the Stalinist commissars he seems determined to mimic.  Elementary logic suffices to demonstrate that.  Note that this would be true even if we were downplaying Pol Pot's crimes, which is a pure lie, as he would discover if he sought to try the experiment of literacy instead of repeating gossip he's heard somewhere."

Johann, it is reasonable for you to imagine that you can repeat fact-free establishment propaganda - including the usual smears - in the Independent and come away with your credibility intact. It is a big mistake, however, to expect the same outcome in media where evidence, consistency and rationality are deemed important.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell

Hari has since responded a third time. We will not be responding to this email. It is available at the Media Lens website www.Media Lens.org under 'latest', and also at www.johannhari.com

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Email: j.hari@independent.co.uk

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