Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2020

Noam Chomsky jumps the shark on Syria

Filed under: Chomsky,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:51 pm

One might say that Noam Chomsky can be excused for stupidity since he is now 91 and clearly a victim of the aging process, as are eventually all of us. However, when it comes to Syria, he has speaking foolishly since 2015. I say “speaking” since he seems to have the lost the ability to write substantive articles. Most of the pearls of wisdom are plucked from interviews with his fans at myriad websites. Like fellow professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen, whose “articles” in The Nation were transcribed from chats with far-right WABC personality John Bachelor, anything “written” by Chomsky is a transcription.

The first sign that not all was right was an interview he gave at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics in 2015.

You’ll find him saying that Russian intervention in Syria could not be considered imperialism because Assad invited him in. With that benchmark, the American intervention in Vietnam was not imperialism either, since it was “invited” in by the South Vietnamese government. He condemns Saudi Arabia for supporting “the jihadi movement” but doesn’t bother to consider the Iranian and Hizbollah intervention since ostensibly their Shi’ite fundamentalism is benign. Like many on the left, including me, Chomsky was speaking against American intervention. It’s too bad that he reduced everybody opposed to Assad as inevitably coming under the authority of “jihadis”. Perhaps if the CIA had not intervened in 2012 to block the shipment of MANPAD’s to the FSA, the rebels would have been a position to create a new government that met with Chomsky’s approval.

Two years later, after Assad’s air force used a sarin gas missile in Khan Sheikhoun that killed 92 people, Chomsky stuck his foot in his mouth again. Speaking at UMass Amherst on April 13, he told the gathering that “actually we don’t [know what happened]”. He invoked Theodore Postol, whom he regarded as “one of the most sophisticated and successful analysts of military strategic issues”. He was satisfied that Postol had reviewed the White House Intelligence Report “in detail” and tore it “to shreds.”

It turns out that Postol turned in an article expanding on his initial reaction to Khan Sheikhoun to a journal titled Science & Global Security, upon whose editorial board he sits. After doing the peer review that such journals must follow, they decided to reject it. A statement on their website states:

To ensure the high standards of editorial control, integrity, and rigor that this journal has always sought to maintain, we conducted an independent internal review of the editorial process for this manuscript. This review identified a number of issues with the peer-review and revision process. As a result, the editors have decided to withhold the publication of this article to examine whether the editors can rectify the problems that we identified.

One doubts that this matters much to Chomsky since his esteem for Postol transcends scholarly norms, especially when it comes to the nasty jihadis in Khan Sheikhoun. Why bother getting upset over 92 of their supporters being gassed to death, when they might have received funding from Saudi Arabia.

More recently, Chomsky has gotten involved with “investigations” proving that the chlorine gas attack in Douma in 2018 was a “false flag”. As part of the propaganda offensive by Wikileaks, an open letter was signed by former OPCW director José Bustani, Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk. They hoped that their good names would help draw attention to “alternative hypotheses on how the alleged chlorine munitions came to be found in the two apartment buildings.” It is sad that these model citizens’ reputations will be stained forever by serving such filthy ends.

In a recent gaffe-filled interview with Grayzone’s Aaron Maté, he tries to take the high ground as a free speech absolutist and anti-imperialist. Grayzone has published numerous articles absolving Assad and Chomsky seemed happy to carry their water. In the interview, Chomsky was indignant that the UN Security Council voted against hearing testimony from José Bustani, the former head of the OPCW who has joined the Wikileaks Douma “false flag” brigade.

Chomsky saw a pattern here. There was a nefarious conspiracy to silence whistleblowers who, after all, were only corroborating what an expert in the region had already established. Chomsky told Maté, “Well what happened certainly arouses very severe suspicions. The OPCW came out with a report blaming Syria for a chemical attack. Reporters like Robert Fisk and others thought it was pretty shady at the time, but didn’t know.”

Actually, it was Fisk’s reporting that was shady and it only shows how out of touch Chomsky was to uphold it. Richard Hall, a former editor at the Independent, where Fisk’s reporting appears, took to Twitter to debunk Fisk’s reporting:

Robert Fisk is allowed access to Douma before OCPW inspectors are allowed in. Doesn’t speak to any witnesses of the attack, only a doctor who didn’t see it, but says everyone “knows what happened.”

Fisk seems perplexed why victims of the attack did not hang around in Douma when the government took over the area. And doesn’t seriously deal with the fact that those who stayed behind might not be able to speak freely.

Fisk is among a handful of journalists given regular access by Syrian government. He and others are shepherded in on minded trips when it is useful for the government. Journalists who do make it in and write something that counters the government narrative are not allowed back.

Fisk notes in his piece that he was granted access to the site before chemical weapons inspectors. As were a number of other journalists who — let’s be generous here — toe the government line. That feels like an attempt to muddy the waters ahead of an independent investigation.

As for Douma itself, the whole notion of a “false flag” can only be maintained by assuming a scenario that defies reason. If you believe that bearded bad guys manually placed chlorine tanks in a Douma apartment building on April 7, 2018, you must be able to answer such questions:

  • If the Jaish el-Islam (the Army of Islam that controlled Douma) was capable of weaponizing chlorine gas tanks, why wouldn’t they have used them in confrontations with Assad’s military especially since it was closing in on them in 2018? According to Tobias Schneider and Theresa Lütkefend of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, there have been 336 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2012. They attribute two percent of them to ISIS and all the rest to the dictatorship. A search in Nexis for “chlorine & attack & Syria” in Lexis-Nexis will return 5,404 articles sorted by relevance. After a review of the first twenty-five, I found not a single one referring to rebel usage. You’re welcome to work your way through the remaining 5,379.
  • Procuring chlorine tanks might have been relatively easy, but how could Jaish el-Islam construct the fins, harness, axis, and wheels that are necessary for both loading into and then dropping them from helicopters? If you are going to frame Assad, you’d better be in a position to replicate the weapon he has been using for at least five years. Would Henderson and Alex argue that the pictures of the two weaponized chlorine tanks seen in the OPCW report were photoshopped? If not, how do you construct the fins, harness, axis and wheels from scratch? Did Jaish el-Islam make them in a machine shop? As someone with a night school diploma in lathe and milling machine from my days colonizing industry, I can tell you that this is not an easy task during constant bombardment and electrical blackouts.
  • The Jaish el-Islam had to use a pneumatic drill or sledgehammers to create large holes in concrete ceilings or find apartments that had them already. If the apartment already had a hole, what accounted for the rubble on the floor beneath it? And what about the attention such tools would draw during a heavy-duty penetration of concrete ceilings? The racket would be enough to awaken the dead. Furthermore, what would their neighbors make of them hauling 300-pound chlorine tanks to the building and up the stairs? Clunkety-clunkety-clunk. Anybody spotting them would figure out that they were up to no good, especially since Douma tenement buildings were not likely to have rooftop swimming pools in need of sterilization.
  • To make sure that the forty to fifty people who were to become sacrificial lambs in this unlikely false flag operation, the Jaish el-Islam had to prevent them from fleeing from the bottom floors, where they had taken refuge. But what if they tried to flee the minute chlorine gas was detected? If anybody escaped, wouldn’t they finger Jaish el-Islam ? How would Jaish el-Islam not lose all support immediately? The Jaish el-Islam might have been authoritarian, but it was not about to risk its reputation killing innocent civilians, especially those they were supposed to be protecting. Groups like the Jaish el-Islam were not the same as ISIS, after all. In Idlib today, there are frequent protests against hard-core Islamist groups. Less than a month ago, hundreds of people in Idlib protested against the self-proclaimed National Salvation Government, an affiliate of the Jaish el-Islam . Not a single person was injured or killed. By the standards of Baathist or ISIS rule, they are enjoying freedoms that remain as tangible gains of the revolution that began in 2011.

I tried to raise these questions with Chomsky in an email. He showed zero interest in engaging with the problems raised by a false flag. Back in 1967, he wrote an article in the NY Review of Books titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”. It was about how subservient intellectual culture was to power. I guess when the power is Russian or Syrian, it’s not as bad as if it was American. Here he is, now in his 90s, chatting it up with Grayzone, some of the most rapacious and cynical supporters of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping on the left. Grayzone goes so far as to deny repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This would disqualify them in my eyes for an interview. Maybe Noam’s standards are lower than mine, despite his infinite self-regard.

Maybe Chomsky should reread “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” to get his head straightened out. It’s never too late.

May 9, 2016

Ukraine, NATO and Noam Chomsky’s deficits

Filed under: Chomsky,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm


Showing up on TomDispatch, the Guardian, Alternet, CounterPunch and ZNet just for starts is an excerpt from Noam Chomsky’s new book Who Rules The World?, which is basically a variant on the same book he has been writing for 25 years or so. For example, in 2004 he came out with Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance and before that in 1992 What Uncle Sam Wants. Such books have had an enormous influence, mostly beneficial. Unfortunately, given the geopolitical orientation that serves as Chomsky’s compass, there is a tendency to adopt a Manichean understanding of world politics in which the USA symbolizes Darkness. While it is true that the USA is evil, it does not follow that those who oppose it are pure as the driven snow. Of course, an anarchist like Chomsky would never write the same kind of pro-Kremlin propaganda as a Seymour Hersh or a Patrick Cockburn, but he has come dangerously close on occasion and even wandered into their territory.

The most obvious example is Chomsky relying on the word of Cockburn about Syria who he described as “doing the best job of reporting” on ISIS. Probably like so many on the left, Chomsky is simply uninformed about the critiques of Cockburn mounted by Idrees Ahmad and others. It was Ahmad who debunked Cockburn’s characterization of the Assad dictatorship being ISIS’s main enemy. There was abundant evidence that the Baathists had worked out a nonaggression pact not long after ISIS showed up in Syria.

The excerpt does not take up Syria but it does have a section on Ukraine, another country susceptible to Manichean geopolitical reductionism. Chomsky writes:

Of particular concern to Russia are plans to expand NATO to Ukraine. These plans were articulated explicitly at the Bucharest NATO summit of April 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership in NATO. The wording was unambiguous: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” With the “Orange Revolution” victory of pro-Western candidates in Ukraine in 2004, State Department representative Daniel Fried rushed there and “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” as a WikiLeaks report revealed.

Russia’s concerns are easily understandable. They are outlined by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer in the leading U.S. establishment journal, Foreign Affairs. He writes that “the taproot of the current crisis [over Ukraine] is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” which Putin viewed as “a direct threat to Russia’s core interests.”

This passage encapsulates Chomsky’s intellectual and political deficits when it comes to the traditional Cold War narrative, especially quoting a realist like Mearsheimer. If I read something like moving “Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit”, alarm bells would go off. How in the world does an anarchist repeat the words of a shithook like Mearsheimer on Moscow’s prerogatives? By this yardstick, JFK had every right to blockade Cuba since it was traditionally in Washington’s orbit. Mearsheimer was a supporter of the first Gulf War, writing an op-ed piece in the NY Times on February 8, 1991 that concluded: “Fortunately, a quick victory will reduce losses on both sides and allow the U.S. to turn to the more difficult task of helping to construct a lasting political settlement in the region.” My suggestion is to stop treating Mearsheimer as some kind of expert witness. He is only a step above Henry Kissinger on the food chain.

Like so many on the left, Chomsky’s tendency is to find the secret telltale document that will reveal the truth about American intentions so that the scales will fall from his reader’s eyes and turn him into a resolute anti-imperialist. More often than not, the smoking gun turns up in Wikileaks as indicated above. What needs to be addressed, however, is the complex interplay of Western and Ukrainian interests with respect to NATO that are by no means as Manichean Black-and-White as Chomsky would have you believe.

Speaking of colors, a lot of the confusion arises with the Orange Revolution of 2004 that grew out of anger over the perception that the presidential elections that year had been rigged. It pitted the Western favorite Viktor Yushchenko against Viktor Yanukovych, whose initial victory was tainted by corruption, voter intimidation and outright fraud. Massive protests eventually led to a recount and Yuschenko being declared the winner.

Whatever Yuschenko or Daniel Fried favored, the fact was that NATO was not popular with the Ukrainian people—a fact that somehow gets lost in the shuffle in the millions of words written about their nation’s post-Soviet history. The Jamestown Foundation reported on a poll taken in 2008:

A recent public opinion poll on the issue, conducted by the Kyiv-based Sofia think-tank from May 7 to 14, showed that only 21.4 percent of Ukrainians are inclined to support NATO membership, and 53 percent of those polled approved of the April failure to secure a MAP [Membership Action Plan]. The poll identified the main reasons for the negative attitude to NATO membership. Most Ukrainians fear that this would spoil relations with Russia (74 percent of those polled), force them to take part in US-led wars (67 percent), exacerbate tension in society (60 percent), prompt more spending on defense (58 percent), and make Ukraine a target for terrorists (58 percent).

With so many leftists regarding the Ukrainians as an undifferentiated mass of puppets whose strings are pulled by George Soros (except in the workers’ paradises in Donetsk and Luhansk of course), this kind of information is best swept under the rug if it ever came up on their radar screen to begin with. People like Noam Chomsky, I’m afraid, only read material that reinforces their own bias.

The will of the people was obviously reflected in decisions made at the top. Despite the fact that the president of Ukraine was all in favor of a hard linkage to Washington, there was little evidence of rapid progress toward that end, nor any signs that Yanukovych, the Kremlin’s best friend, was particularly opposed to ties with NATO.

In 2006, Yanukovych became Ukraine’s Prime Minister, a post that is below that of President but that has significant political weight. He replaced Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been fired by Yuschenko for mismanaging the economy. Despite her reputation as a mortal enemy of Russia and a heroine of the Orange Revolution, she was Putin’s favorite politician in Ukraine and arrested for her part in a crooked deal that favored Russian gas exporters.

Despite his reputation as a fierce opponent of the West, Yanukovych was okay with NATO as Novye Izvestia reported on August 9, 2006:

Ukraine’s newly-appointed prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, is continuing the previous government’s policy of integration into the European Union and NATO. What’s more, at the end of last week the Supreme Rada, controlled by Yanukovych, passed a resolution legalizing the presence of foreign troops in Ukraine. NATO soldiers will soon take part in three military exercises, and NATO vessels will visit Sevastopol in September.

One month later he made a speech at NATO HQ in Brussels that could have been made by Yuschenko himself, as reported by the BBC on September 21:

Today we have the intention of concentrating on deepening relationships of partnership with the Alliance on the basis of Intensified dialogue on membership and the annual goals of action plans.

Ukraine highly values the level of cooperation with NATO. We value continual support for our Euroatlantic desires, support for military reform and democratic and market transformations.

Among the foremost priorities of government activity are strengthening informational work in sphere of relations with NATO. There is not a lack of such programmes, but they need to be augmented with specific content.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, there’s a Washington Post article dated November 28, 2006 that reveals Yanukovych as a willing tool of the West—the kind of reprobate who deserved a swift kick in the pants from a bona fide anti-imperialist like Noam Chomsky:

“My goal, first, is to develop a strategic relationship between Ukraine and the United States that is predictable, effective and has a good perspective,” he said of his Washington visit, during which he will meet with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His aides are still hoping for a meeting with President Bush, however brief. According to protocol, he should meet only with the vice president, since he is not the head of state, but a presidential handshake would imply some acceptance of Yanukovych’s new incarnation.

Ever read anything about Yanukovych like this on TomDispatch, ZNet, CounterPunch, DissidentVoice, Alternet, Truthout or the Nation Magazine? I bet you didn’t.

Now some of you might think that Yanukovych was taking this tack because as Yuschenko’s subordinate he was obligated to. Was he just waiting for the day when he could reveal to the world that he was a genuine fighter for the “axis of resistance” and maybe the next best thing to Lenin today (even if he had to keep that a secret from Putin who described Lenin as Russia’s worst nightmare)?

In 2010, he would run for president against Yulia Tymoshenko, who was widely regarded by the Kremlin’s friends in the west as a mortal threat to Russia, the woman who was on the phone with Victoria Nuland about how Ukraine would become a colony of the West and who shocked the world (or at least the conspiracy-minded part of it) for advocating that the Russians be “nuked” for intervening in Ukraine against Euromaidan. As a candidate he could repudiate his sordid past, just as Donald Trump did when he spoke about making donations to politicians so as to influence legislation that would favor his businesses.

Well, once again reality defies anti-imperialist schemas as the Observer reported on January 10, 2010:

Yanukovych is understood to have angered Moscow by supporting Ukraine’s attempt to join the EU. But Tymoshenko has become the unexpected hero of the Kremlin, after tempering the anti-Russian stance that was a hallmark of her 2004 campaign and early premiership. While remaining avowedly pro-EU, she has built a pragmatic alliance with Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister. The two very publicly ended the drawn-out gas dispute between the two countries last winter and were credited with avoiding a repeat this year. Tymoshenko now calls the Orange Revolution “a revolution of lost opportunities”.

After winning the election, Yanukovych continued to demonstrate the trustworthiness to the West that somehow got overlooked in the analysis of Chomsky, Stephen F. Cohen, John Mearsheimer and other denizens of prestigious American academic outposts. On October 8, 2010 the BBC filed a report titled President reaffirms Ukraine’s EU bid, says ties with NATO “comfortable”. He reassured an audience of French academics and businessmen that he was on the same wavelength as them:

He reaffirmed Kiev’s bid to join the EU. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency at 0950 gmt on 8 October quoted him as saying: “I have always insisted and still insist that Ukraine will never drop either its European integration policy or its ambition to become a EU member.”

“Ukraine has the right to expect more from the EU,” Yanukovych continued. “We are not seeking to have it all and have it now, but we think that it is possible to speak today about the conclusion of an association agreement and about preparations for the introduction of visa-free travel.”

He said that, to achieve this, Ukraine was ready to do “homework” and carry out reforms.

Yanukovych also said that Ukraine was pleased with its relations with NATO, Interfax-Ukraine reported at 0906 gmt the same day.

“Relations with NATO are currently taking shape. They are comfortable for both Ukraine and NATO. They are open and honest, at least,” he said, adding that Ukraine was developing pragmatic relations with the alliance through participation in its peacekeeping missions and fight against terrorism.

Up until this point, the average Ukrainian could give less of a shit about NATO. He or she did want to be part of the EU because they saw it—rightly or wrongly—as an alternative to the kleptocracy they had been living under.

When Yanukovych was essentially blackmailed into backing away from the EU and falling in line with Russia economically and politically, the country erupted. Have doubts about whether Yanukovych was coerced? Then just consider what Fred Weir reported in the Christian Science Monitor on October 23, 2012:

President Vladimir Putin met with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych at the Russian leader’s country home Novo Ogaryovo late Monday, and declared some progress toward Mr. Putin’s goal of integrating Ukraine’s economy with Russia’s. But he gave no word addressing Mr. Yanukovych’s hope of winning a reduced price for Russian natural gas exports to his post-Soviet nation.

The meeting, though one in a routine series, illustrates that Ukraine may be gradually edging toward Russia as its other alternatives wear thin. The Ukrainian economy, which has few natural resources, has suffered badly in recent years, in part due to the deepening crisis in the European Union, in part thanks to the crippling price of Russian natural gas for its extremely inefficient industry and housing stock. Yanukovych’s insistence on prosecuting and jailing his main opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, has deeply alienated the EU and further complicated any chances for economic integration with the West.

“There are some reasons to think that Ukraine and Russia’s positions are drawing closer,” says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Kiev Center of Political and Conflict Studies.

“If we don’t develop our relations with Russia, Ukraine might be facing serious economic problems,” he adds. “Trade turnover with Europe has been falling due to the recession, and Ukraine’s government budget is in serious doubt. The only direction we can look for financial aid would be Russia. If the worst happens, and there is no money to pay pensions and other benefits, our authorities will be in trouble.”

That might ring a bell. It is just the Kremlin using its muscle on a head of state who had very little leverage. It is just the Russian version of what the Germans did to Alexi Tsipras. Once the Ukrainians got wind of this betrayal, they came out into the streets. They came out not because Victoria Nuland got on the phone with Yulia Tymoshenko or because Daniel Fried “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” If you’ve had to put up with police brutality, corruption, neglected social services, and a general sense of being a colonial subject, you too would take to the streets and raise hell. It is to the everlasting shame of the Western left that it cannot get it into its thick skull that the Syrians and Ukrainians have the same kind of aspirations as the rest of humanity, no matter what Noam Chomsky thinks.

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