Chomsky on winning sides again

A New Generation Draws the Line

May 25, 2001

Noam Chomsky is a linguistician renowned for the profundity and obscurity of his scholarly work. There is nothing obscure, however, about A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West . Despite the convoluted, opaque and often repetitive nature of the prose, Chomsky's message is admirably clear. It is - as one might expect - entirely of a piece with his earlier excursion on the same topic, The New Military Humanism , and his diverse polemical sallies on United States foreign policy over the past 30 years.

Chomsky, in a word, remains unshaken in his view that US foreign policy - driven more by sinister corporate forces than cold-war demons - is the principal source of injustice and instability in the world. More specifically, Chomsky condemns Nato's campaign in Kosovo as a reckless and self-interested adventure that had everything to do with Nato credibility and nothing to do with the doctrine of humanitarian intervention advanced in its justification. The failure of the West - that is the US - to conduct a comparable operation to liberate East Timor from Indonesian oppression, Chomsky claims, proves this beyond peradventure.

The author has some valid points to make about the western, specifically US, record in the third world. His account of US military and political support of General Suharto's murderous regime in Indonesia is painful to read. The knowledge that some of the great and good of US liberal internationalism such as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the former assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, the hero of Dayton - were deeply implicated in this sorry connection is profoundly sobering. Moreover, as the author shows, American policy did not merely fail to stop Indonesian crimes against Timor, but supported the regime in Jakarta until almost the very end.

Nor can any reasonable observer dispute some of Chomsky's criticisms of Nato's bombing campaign in Kosovo. Even the most ardent interventionist would agree that the operation was sloppily conceived, and - at least in its early stages - languidly executed. And there are understandable concerns about the whole concept of humanitarian intervention and its implications for the post-cold-war international order.

But most of what Chomsky says about Kosovo is wild and unsubstantiated. In particular, he is mistaken in claiming that there is "no meaningful evidence of a Serb offensive after the withdrawal of the (international ceasefire) monitors". Yet it is a proven fact that the Serb offensive against the Kosovar Albanian rebels intensified sharply once the monitors had been extracted and that there were more than 200,000 internally displaced refugees even before the bombing started. Similarly, Chomsky is unimpressed by the argument that Belgrade-sponsored massacres and deportations perpetrated in Bosnia, visited on a defenceless civilian population that had given no provocation, might have suggested that the likelihood of a repeat performance was far from remote. "It is a long step," he cavils, "from the existence of plans and preparation to the conclusion that the plans will be implemented unless the planner is subjected to military attack."

Underlying Chomsky's analysis is a complete unwillingness to come to terms with what actually happened in Bosnia. There is justified outrage about Indonesian atrocities committed decades ago in East Timor but virtually nothing about Srebrenica, Foca, Zvornik, Manjaca and Omarska, place names that were bywords for massacre, deportation and torture in the very recent past. Instead, Chomsky dismisses the Bosnian precedent with unworldly cynicism and specious logic. "If proponents of the 'repetition of Bosnia' thesis intend it seriously, they should certainly have been calling for bombing of Jakarta - indeed Washington and London - in early 1999 so as 'not to allow a repetition in East Timor' of the crimes that Indonesia, the US and United Kingdom had perpetrated there for a quarter-century." This awesome leap across continents, chronology and context is a relatively mild example of Chomsky's modus operandi .

The stance is one of invincible scepticism; the method is one of circular and self-referential argument. Yet Chomsky's scepticism goes only so far. The whole argument is informed by a quaint regard for state sovereignty, for him surely an outdated western concept that more radical thinkers have long since unmasked as a hegemonic tool. But perhaps it is this obsession with sovereignty that lies behind his bizarre and uncritical reverence for the pronouncements of the so-called "South Summit G-77" - in Havana! - an improvident rabble in whose ranks murderers, torturers and robbers are conspicuously represented. The fact that these dignitaries felt so threatened by the notion of humanitarian intervention is, for Chomsky, no argument in its favour.

There is, in fact, a certain void at the heart of Chomsky's project. He does not actually say that the West should have intervened in East Timor, or should do so in other regions of the world. It would be fascinating to know what he thinks should be done about Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and other egregious despots. One suspects that any western intervention would be condemned as neo-colonial, while failure to intervene would merely underline his contention that the West was leaving Africa to its own devices. Chomsky would win - as he always has - either way.

Brendan Simms is lecturer in international relations, University of Cambridge.

A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West

Author - Noam Chomsky
ISBN - 1 85984 789 7
Publisher - Verso
Price - £15.00
Pages - 154

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