The Observer’s Foreign Affairs Editor Peter Beaumont Reviews Noam Chomsky’s Failed States

Beaumont continues of Chomsky:

“In attempting to create a consistent argument for America as murderous bully, going back to the Seminole Wars, he edits out anything that could be put on the other side of the balance sheet. I could find no mention of the Marshall Plan…”

Beaumont might have tried turning to pp.49-50 of Chomsky’s previous book, Hegemony Or Survival. Alternatively, the Observer’s senior editor on foreign affairs might have deployed his investigative skills to search the words ‘Marshall Plan’ on the www.chomsky.info website, as we did. This instantly appears from 2004:

“The favored illustration of ‘generosity and goodwill’ is the Marshall Plan. That merits examination, on the ‘strongest case’ principle. The inquiry again quickly yields facts ‘that “it wouldn’t do” to mention.’ For example, the fact that ‘as the Marshall Plan went into full gear the amount of American dollars being pumped into France and the Netherlands was approximately equaled by the funds being siphoned from their treasuries to finance their expeditionary forces in Southeast Asia,’ to carry out terrible crimes.

“And that the tied aid provisions help explain why the U.S. share in world trade in grains increased from less than 10% before the war to more than half by 1950, while Argentine exports reduced by two-thirds. And that under U.S. influence Europe was reconstructed in a particular mode, not quite that sought by the anti-fascist resistance, though fascist and Nazi collaborators were generally satisfied. And that the generosity was overwhelmingly bestowed by American taxpayers upon the corporate sector, which was duly appreciative, recognizing years later that the Marshall Plan ‘set the stage for large amounts of private U.S. direct investment in Europe,’ establishing the basis for the modern Transnational Corporations, which ‘prospered and expanded on overseas orders… fueled initially by the dollars of the Marshall Plan’ and protected from ‘negative developments’ by ‘the umbrella of American power.’”
(Chomsky, ‘The United States and the “Challenge of Relativity”’; http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199811–.htm)

Chomsky, we are told, also ducks “the genuine fear of the Soviet Union, one of the most brutally efficient human-rights-abusing states in history”. In a February 1996 interview, Ira Shorr asked Chomsky:

“Current plans call for increasing US military spending by $7 billion more than the Pentagon requested. Why do you think that in the absence of an enemy that was supposedly as formidable as the former Soviet Union was that military spending is going up?”

Chomsky replied:

“Well, what that shows us is what we should have known all along and, indeed, was obvious all along, that military spending had very little to do with the Soviet Union. In fact, this gives us a good measure as to the actual assessment of the Soviet threat. Military spending is now – before the increases – is now at a higher level in real terms than it was under Nixon. It’s at about 85 percent of the Cold War average and it’s now going up. And that gives a rational person a measure of how seriously the Soviet threat was taken. Answer: Not seriously at all, or very marginally.”

Shorr: “Well, we were fighting communism, is what we were told.”

Chomsky: ‘Well, what we called communism, but communism could be priests organizing peasants in El Salvador. We were fighting somebody who was trying to construct a system of – a socio-economic system that was not in the interest of American investors. And then if you can get them to rely on the Russians, so much the better. And because of that, it sort of took a Cold War aspect to it, you know, on the margins, but no serious planner could have believed it.

“And, in fact, if you look at the record, it’s clear and now we know, because the Soviet Union is gone and everything remains the same. Yes, because the policies had very little to do with the Soviet Union, except in so far as it’s a big force and – like if you attack Nicaragua and you block arms from France, they’ll turn to the Russians. Yes, in that respect, the Russians were there.” (‘On US Military Budgets – Noam Chomsky interviewed by Ira Shorr,’ America’s Defense Monitor and the Center for Defense Information, February 11, 1996; http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/19960211.htm)

The British historian Mark Curtis has confirmed this view:

“The State Department noted in 1950 that Communist parties were ‘non-existent in Yemen and Saudi Arabia; outlawed in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon and apparently unorganised in Jordan.’ Rather, ‘throughout the Arab states, at the present time, extreme rightist or ultra-nationalist elements may exercise greater influence and form a greater threat to the maintenance of a pro-Western orientation than the communists.’” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, pp.31-2)

Curtis commented ironically:

“So, if there was little or no communist or Soviet threat to the Middle East, ‘Black’ Africa, North Africa, the Far East, South Asia and Southeastern Asia, there were not many areas left where communism or the Soviet Union could be supposed to be on the march.” (Ibid, p.32)

Beaumont adds of Chomsky:

“At other times, he elides rumour with quotes taken out of context, for example where he refers to: ‘A Jordanian journalist [who] was informed by officials in charge of the Jordanian-Iraqi border after US and UK forces took over that radioactive materials were detected in one of every eight trucks crossing into Jordan destination unknown. “Stuff happens,” in Rumsfeld’s words.’

“That’s all pretty puzzling – as four pages earlier, Chomsky gives the impression that the weapons of mass destruction thing was all a deception.”

Does Beaumont really believe Chomsky is all but alone on the planet in believing Iraq had nuclear WMD capacity in 2002-2003? A notion dismissed out of hand by UN weapons inspectors who confirm that Iraq’s nuclear programme had been 100% eliminated by 1998. Even Bush, Blair, Powell and Straw shied away from making such a preposterous claim.

On the other hand, there +were+ many media reports in 2003 of yellow cake – a radioactive compound derived from uranium ore – being emptied on the ground from containers that were then taken for domestic use, and of radioactive sources being stolen and removed from their shielding. In response, Mohamed El Baradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said:

“I am deeply concerned by the almost daily reports of looting and destruction at nuclear sites, and about the potential radiological safety and security implications of nuclear and radiological materials that may no longer be under control. We have a moral responsibility to establish the facts without delay and take urgent remedial action.” (UN News Service, ‘IAEA urges return of experts to Iraq to address possible radiological emergency,’ May 19, 2003)

No one, least of all Chomsky, has claimed that these “radiological materials” constituted weapons of mass destruction.

Beaumont then notes:

“Between pages 60 and 62, for instance, he cannot decide whether an alleged bribe paid to UN official is $150,000 or $160,000. Maybe it’s a typo. Maybe not.”

Again, a little research might have clarified the issue. Chomsky begins by mentioning “fevered tales” surrounding an alleged £160,000 bribe – the figure cited in the interim report of the Volcker commission and widely reported in US press coverage when the story broke in February 2005. Chomsky then cites press coverage of the $147,000 figure taken from the +final+ report of the Volcker commission in August 2005. This final figure was often rounded up to $150,000 in press reporting. Thus:

“Investigators in the $35 million Independent Inquiry Committee into the U.N. Oil-for-Food Program used a time- and trial-tested method of garnering obviously circumstantial evidence to accuse the former director of the program, Benon Sevan, of collecting more than $150,000 in kickbacks… bank records showed that Sevan deposited $147,184 in cash, usually in $100 bills, the committee said.” (William M. Reilly, ‘Sleuths followed U.N. money,’ UPI, August 9, 2005)

Chomsky draws attention to the widely used figure that initially received major attention – he then supplies the lower figure from the Volcker commission’s final report.

Beaumont continues:

“But what I find most noxious about Chomsky’s argument is his desire to create a moral – or rather immoral – equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history.

Beaumont must have missed the BBC’s rare, May 2004 Newsnight interview with Chomsky. Jeremy Paxman asked:

“You seem to be suggesting or implying, perhaps I’m being unfair to you, but you seem to be implying there is some moral equivalence between democratically elected heads of state like George Bush or Prime Ministers like Tony Blair and regimes in places like Iraq.”

Chomsky replied:

“The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeane Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence whatsoever.” (‘On American Imperialism and British Me Too-ism – Noam Chomsky interviewed by Jeremy Paxman,’
BBC News, May 19, 2004; http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20040519.htm)

Beaumont again:

“Thus on page 129, comparing a somewhat belated US conversion to the case for democracy in Iraq after the failure to find WMD, Chomsky claims: ‘Professions of benign intent by leaders should be dismissed by any rational observer. They are near universal and predictable, and hence carry virtually no information. The worst monsters – Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, Suharto, Saddam Hussein and many others – have produced moving flights of rhetoric about their nobility of purpose.’“

“Which leads to a question: is that really what you see, Mr Chomsky, from the window of your library at MIT? Is it the stench of the gulag wafting over the Charles River? Do you walk in fear of persecution and murder for expressing your dissident views? Or do you make a damn good living out of it?”

As discussed above (Part 1), Chomsky has endlessly affirmed the relative freedom of the United States:

“The United States is, in fact, the freest society in the world. The level of freedom and protection of freedom of speech has no parallel anywhere. This was not a gift; it’s not because it was written in the Constitution. Up to the 1920s, the United States was very repressive, probably more so than England. The great breakthrough was in 1964 when the law of seditious libel was eliminated. This, in effect, made it a crime to condemn authority. It was finally declared unconstitutional in the course of the civil rights struggle. Only popular struggle protects freedom.”

Chomsky has also explained the point he is making about the “moving flights of rhetoric”:

“You have to pretend that we don’t do things for self-interest. We do them altruistically. So the standard line in British, American, French and other propaganda is that everything we do is altruistic… Maybe a few cynics will say it but almost everyone will give you the conventional – ‘we’re altruistic, we’re working for the good of others, they don’t appreciate it, we don’t understand why they hate us, we’ve done so much for them’ and so on and so forth. Very few people are going to say ‘they hate us because we rob them‘…

“And it’s not just Britain, the US, France and others. It’s every system of domination. Just try someday reading Hitler’s propaganda or the propaganda of the Japanese fascists. I mean it’s just overcome with love for the people of the world, what kind of wonderful things we were going to do for them. Japan was going to create an earthly paradise in Asia where everyone would work together in peace and Japan has the technology so it would serve them and help them.

“The only problem was trying to protect the population from the Chinese bandits, the Chinese who they were conquering. It’s just full of, you know, tears come to your eyes it’s just so beautiful. And that’s the standard line of every imperial power plus the line that says look how much good we did for you. I mean we built railroads so we could export products – that part’s not mentioned. But to say we did that out of self-interest is very rare.” (‘American Empire – Noam Chomsky interviewed by Matthew Kennard,’ November 21, 2004; http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20041121.htm)

Beaumont concludes:

“The faults of the Bush administration will not be changed by books such as Failed States. They will be swept away by ordinary, decent Americans in the world’s greatest – if flawed and selfish – democracy going to the polls.”

Chomsky would surely agree that it will take more than books to make a difference. But are the faults of the Bush administration the primary concern? And is going to the polls to choose between big business Tweedledum and corporate Tweedledee the answer?

Of course not. In truth, like most of his media peers, Beaumont is intellectually and ethically drowning in superficiality. It is the job of the ‘liberal’ press to ensure that readers who might otherwise be informed and empowered activists for progressive change do the same.

In Part 3, we will examine Peter Beaumont’s June 18 online article, ‘Microscope on Media Lens’ (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1800328,00.html).


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.

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