Chomsky and conflicting elements of US foreign policy

by John August

I’ve long been interested in Chomsky’s writings, but I could always see good and bad in them. I’ve struggled to understand foreign policy and how the US fits in. It’s different to the picture painted by both Chomsky and his opponents.

After Chomsky won the Sydney Peace Prize, people railed against the Sydney Centre for Peace And Conflict Studies (SPAC) – again. Keith Windshuttle came to the fore, joined by Ted Lapkin – with lots more material out there. But, even if the SPAC are wrong, however heated his opponents get, it’s not illegal to be wrong – at least not yet, anyway.

The SPAC have their own decisions to make, and are accountable for their mistakes. Yes, criticise. However, critics have lost their sense of proportion. Make your comments – and then back off; provide the space to be accountable … If the SPAC have made such a glaring mistake, it wouldn’t need to be pointed out.

It’s not the Sydney Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies prize – it’s the “Sydney” peace prize. I don’t think all Sydney residents support the SPAC, its choice of Chomsky – let alone being aware it even exists. But it’s not the first time a regional name has been highjacked. They Sydney Shove ? The Sydney Institute ?

Much praise and criticism is superficial and biased. I find commentary more credible if it sees good and bad. There’s isn’t much. Russil Wvong, a Canadian, provides a good start.

Sports and life in general : A distraction ?

Chomsky claims people are distracted and brainwashed so governments get away with their foreign policies. Sports is a particular distraction.

However, I know many politically aware and active people who are also interested in sports. Pro-Chomsky bloggers even parade who they barrack for. It does not stop an interest in progressive politics. Some people might be “distracted” – but that’s a far cry from it being an overwhelming effect. It’s the only area where I almost agree with Windshuttle. People consume the media; there are choices, and a range of voices. At the same time, there are structured attempts at persuasion – from both sides. Some people have bigger megaphones than others. There are problems, but it’s not like 1984 either.

While there is inequality and poverty, many people have time to think about the political world. I see many people who are not that wealthy, but still have time to pursue hobbies, pay attention to world affairs and develop elaborate political perspectives ( over the whole political spectrum ).

We’ve come a long way over a few hundred years – from slaves, bonded workers and children working in mines to our current relative prosperity. There’s been an improvement but an inequality still remains. While some people may be wage-slaves, fewer than Chomsky would claim are also wage-slave zombies who cannot think for themselves.

We do have to let people make their own choices. Some people don’t waste their choice. But choice is wasted just as much on feral lefties as it is on the unthinking Alan Jones cohort.

The left, the right, and Stalin

In Australia, we long had – within the Sydney Push – a strong left view that was anti-Stalin. The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia split the Australian left, with aftershocks being felt decades after. Windshuttle claims the left made some sort of Faustian bargain. Like so many, he naively sees “the left” as a homogeneous entity, confusing “the left” broadly speaking, “Chomsky”, “Chomsky supporters”, and other leftist views. “Left” does not necessarily mean “Stalinist”. Well, duh. How slowly do you need to say it ?

Chomsky rails against the “War On Drugs”, calling it a waste of money and distraction from other things. While they might not much agree with Chomsky, some people who otherwise identify as “Right” agree it’s a waste of money. I know people who voted Liberal all their life but bailed when Howard went to Iraq. “The Right” is not homogeneous, either.

Chomsky’s political stand and collectives in history

Chomsky favours Anarchy. It’s a positive sentiment that we might be able to get along, without the state regulating things or corporations controlling our lives. However impractical, it’s a worthy goal. To think you must be worthless just because of that political inclination seems unfair to me; just as Christopher Hitchens sees knee jerk “Anti Americanism” as problematic, I think “Anti Communism” is also problematic. Yes, there’s a difference between Communism and Anarchy, but the right never got that anyway.

As a part of this, Chomsky focuses on collectives in Spain and also the Kibbutzim in Israel. Some critics claim Chomsky endorses forced collectivisation; in fact his support is for voluntary collectivisation.

Spain did try to replace the State with collectives … maybe if things were different, they might have pulled it off.

However, complete replacement of the state is not the only game in town. In the UK, thinkers like Robert Owen spearheaded the co-operative/self help movement. A producer’s co-operative had a false start, but 1844 saw a successful consumer’s co-operative. We see the legacy of this movement in the large number of “co-operatives” in the UK today. This was well before the struggles in 1864 between Marx and Bakunin over the First International. Concern over inequality and conditions of the working class didn’t start with Marx or Bakunin. And then there was the Chartist movement, advocating for equality before there was a universal vote.

Along the way, there were the enlightened capitalists. The same Robert Owen took over New Lanark in 1810, setting up a community of contented workers. In Australia Thomas Sutcliffe Mort developed refrigeration. Hundreds of workers voluntarily forfeited a day’s pay to witness the unveiling of his statue after his death. The market will not necessarily move towards the most humane outcome – people with vision will see possibilities while others will see only a mathematically ordained path.

We have something to learn from collectives, but not just from Chomsky.

US Foreign Policy towards outside nations, and Chomsky’s US focus

Supposedly communist countries were allied to the Soviet Union, which made it appropriate to attack them. Chomsky sees it differently – communist nations demonstrate an alternative to US style capitalism, and in particular, US control in the region. Such an example would undermine the story of the US, the capitalist framework, with its people in charge. That was why they were undermined.

Chomsky’s preferred “State” has Bakunin style voluntary collectives – but short of this, any form of socialism contrasts to US style capitalism. It’s a bit like supporting Australia and any team that’s playing New Zealand (in their turn, they won’t let us forget about underarm bowling). Yes, Windshuttle you noticed it too – but it’s understandable, not insidious.

However, European style capitalism contrasts to US style capitalism. Some European countries have better indicators of mortality, health, crime, happiness, etc. etc. with higher taxing and spending. Chomsky is justified in focusing on the sins of the US because that’s where he can effect change. However, a separate problem is that Chomsky may be blinkered and let his focus on the US distort his analysis, rather than being a “resource allocation choice”. Adrian Hastings, a British theologian and activist has commented : “If anyone suffers from the disease of seeing the world as so centred in Washington that nothing else really matters, that person is Chomsky.” Still, Chomsky might be a point about nearby nations “going out of the US orbit” if he’s just talking about the US’ point of view.


We’ve looked at some elements of Chomsky’s position, and there’s a bit more to go. The issues are far ranging, covering a wide scope – from the depths of the cold war, Vietnam, Cambodia and more recently – Iraq.

There’s a historical thread. Chomsky tries to demonstrate how the Cold War, Vietnam, and so on are historical examples of US Imperialism, something that continues to the current day. This means a lot of jumping around between the past and the present, along the way looking at other criticisms of Chomsky, and other points he makes. He also considers how we are to assess the consistency of US foreign policy. I’ll be moving through those issues, but not in Chronological order – there’s a lot to consider.

Chomsky and Cambodia

Chomsky is criticised for his past approach views on Cambodia, suggesting he supported a violent and terrible regime – that of Pol Pot. Regardless, the present claim is much more measured – that the US emphasised the crimes of Pol Pot, an enemy, while downplaying crimes in East Timor, a nation which operated under the US’ umbrella.

Regardless of the past, the truth of this claim stands separate. The focus is on Chomsky’s character, on his past, and on his motives – very little on the value of the ideas in themselves. It’s the Genetic Falacy, confusing the origins of an idea with the idea itself. There also seems to be the sentiment that unless something is perfect, it must be totally worthless ( like a lot of political criticism, really ). The Nirvana fallacy : The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good.

General web opinion – including supporters – is that Chomsky’s writings (particularly on Cambodia) have much in the way of distortions of history and quotations out of context. This needs to be kept in mind. However, much criticism goes beyond this observation. It’s a personal attack – from “anti” communists – like Chomsky is “anti” US. Being “Anti this-that-or-the-other”, implies you start with your judgement rather making an analysis which leads you to a conclusion. It is usually pejorative, rather than just a category.

It’s easy to dismiss something as being “anti”, without engaging with the ideas – I see this with both Chomsky and his critics. In fact, the truth or otherwise of something is different to the motivation of the speaker. Hannah Arendt says much political commentary is about the motivations of the advocates, not the ideas themselves.

Both Chomsky and his critics have their distortions – but it doesn’t take much reading to see how his critics quote Chomsky out of context. Chomsky’s commentary is worthwhile in spite of its problems … and because of what it does say.

Whatever the past, John Pilger – a strong supporter of Chomsky – has written on Pol Pot’s atrocities for a very long time. So much for “the left” being silent about Pol Pot.

Moral equivalence – revolutionary violence and war crimes standards – mass murder apologist ?

It’s claimed Chomsky endorses the violence behind revolutions, it being necessary and understandable, with Cambodia (above) one example.

However, other quotes show his endorsement for non-violence :

What one has to ask about a revolution is whether its success is based on its violence; and if we look at revolutions that have taken place I think it’s not at all clear that the success has been based on the violence. In fact to a significant extent it seems to me that the successes have been based on the nonviolence.

Windshuttle claims he “endorses” Maoist China. But Chomsky has said : “There are many things to object to in any society. But take China, modern China; one also finds many things that are really quite admirable. ” This comment that there are also ”admirable” things shows that Chomsky is not giving China a free pass – he is saying there were good and bad things. Together with his other comments, it hardly amounts to a singing endorsement of Maoist China.

You can quote Chomsky selectively; you need to have more to see his actual position. However, the overall thrust of his critics, together with the quotes above, show us that Chomsky is not the supporter of violence his critics make him out to be. Chomsky’s critics support the violence of US intervention – and justify it in their own way.

Comparisons and contrasts in US foreign policy

Chomsky’s comparisons range widely, with some more provocative than others. Saying that there was disproportionate coverage of Cambodia vs. Timor is reasonable. Going further, he claims terrorists in other nations are harboured by the US, but terrorists on behalf of enemies are put into a different category by the US.

Then you have the fact that the US has supported some notable and vicious regimes, including Chile and Argentina – who killed their own citizens. What on earth can they have been thinking ? Then there’s the Contra death squads. The US also bypasses its own laws for “Extraordinary Rendition”, so suspects can be tortured overseas. US exceptionalism again, it would seem.

A state has some prerogative to make its own decisions, sure. To judge a state, however, we need use ideas and perspectives that sit outside that state, like Just War Theory and the Geneva conventions on war. It is a principle of Natural Justice that “no man shall be a judge of his own case”.

The US incorporated the Geneva conventions into its own law so North Vietnamese soldiers who tortured US soldiers could be prosecuted. However, this law could be used to prosecute US soldiers who used interrogation/torture techniques. The US amended the law to make such actions legal in some circumstances.

The hypocrisy can be smelt a mile off. Equally, the fact that the US snookered itself tells us the rule of law is not dead.

Going back in history, Chomsky claims the use of the atomic bombs on Japan during WWII was a “war crime”. There’s in fact the related issue of whether civilians can be targeted at all. Article 8(2)(b)(i) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court says that : “Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities;” is a “serious violation”.

US General Curtis LeMay, commander of the 1945 Tokyo fire bombing operation said : “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side.” It’s a well worn sentiment – by increasing the violence of the war, it means you end it more rapidly, and so reduce the total lives lost. Nobody seems to have thought of running a less violent war that kills fewer people overall, even though it lasts longer ….

Both sides in WWII bombed civilians. However, the Allies did not do anything on the scale of the Holocaust against the Jews and others (a crime against Humanity, but not necessarily a war crime, unless it was done as part of the war), the Rape of Nanking, Unit 731 and similar. Stalin’s forces committed the Katyn massacre of Polish POWs, along with other atrocities. Some will challenge this hopefully mainstream reading of history, but it seems reasonable to me : the Allies were fundamentally different to the Axis in WWII, granting that Allied forces also committed atrocities.

What are we trying to do when we identify “war crimes”? Are war crimes against the victims, the opposing nation, or “humanity at large” ? And what do we gain from identifying them, and bringing the perpetrators to justice ? I’m still a bit confused. But if war crimes are against us, it seems a bit dubious to put in a claim if we did similar things ourselves …

We can look beyond the sides during WWII, and say that the lives lost – on both sides of the war – was the price the world paid for Hitler’s fascism. A price paid by both ”our” people – and “theirs”. It’s worthy perspective.

Our crimes aren’t lesser because the opposition did worse, but in terms of the total of both war crimes and other crimes against humanity, we can see a point in focusing on the bigger total.

For WWII generally, the differences are clear. However, for the atomic bombs, things get murky. It’s a prohibited attack against civilians. However, this does not mean there is no defence for it. The Americans claimed that killing people with the atomic bomb would save more lives. It does makes sense, but the second bomb cannot be similarly justified. There’s some disagreement over how genuine were negotiations for surrender. But, there is a possible justification. Does it pass muster ?

However, at the same time, Chomsky’s comments have another basis. An atomic scientist, Leo Szilard, and an impartial observer, Radhabinod Pal, made similar comments.

Can we justify actions during the different wars? That’s a matter for discussion. Maybe we can play “The Hitler Card” to justify some actions during WWII, I don’t think we can play such a card again. A different question is whether we can make a legal distinction where only one side commits war crimes. Chomsky has a point about the “consistency” of these legal distinctions.

Courts find crimes, individuals don’t proclaim them. Academics can draw from legal principles and make assessments, normally only where a court might conceivably decide such-and-such. Chomsky’s use of the word “crime” is clearly provocative; he’d be better using terms like “atrocities” or “abuses”. Chomsky says the “crimes” of the US exceed those of Bin Laden. If we were to add up all the innocents killed through US sponsored terrorism, he might have a point – though some deaths would have resulted from mistakes in policy and execution. Certainly, though, I think the 9/11 attack is the largest single terrorist attack, regardless of how you define it.

But what is terrorism ? The word is so familiar we’ve forgotten its origins. terrorism : the use of terror for political ends, usually on civilians, for terror and intimidation – as compared to the “necessary” violence involved killing enemy combatants in pursuit of a military objective within a recognised military conflict.

“A recognised military conflict” is different to a “a state of hostility”, and you wonder about conflicts that are not between two recognised states. An attack against a UN or US outpost might be terrorism, particularly if the targets are civilians. The US supported Contra death squads, though, were clearly “terrorists”. In fact, there’s Luis Posada Cariles. It’s claimed he bombed civilian planes in Cuba; he now resides in the US. Cuba tried to extradite him, but the US courts refused on the grounds he might tortured – interesting given their current fondness for torture.

The US seems to see terrorism not as a description of what you do, but rather something that depends on who is doing it. A touchstone would be whether bombing any civilian plane is an act of terrorism, regardless of the nation, and regardless of who did it. US sponsored agents can kill civilians, but it’s an affront when US civilians are killed – that’s terrorism; Chomsky has a point.

Terrorism has several components, including targeting civilians. The US kills people with drones. When ought a sovereign government be able to kill people – maybe when they’re at war – but otherwise ??? Then there’s transparency and accountability – the US has only its own processes, it does not have to justify itself to anyone else.

Nevertheless, it is different to “US sponsored terrorism”. The targets are more obviously combatants as compared to say journalists – Alexander Litvinenko died from Polonium poisoning with suggested connections to Russia. The US did kill two journalists during the Iraq War, when a tank fired a shell at the Palestine Hotel – apparently “while not deliberate, [it] was avoidable” – not like a drone, anyway.

The Cold War and The Soviet Union

Did the US over-react to the Soviet threat ? George F. Kennan, US diplomat and historian, believed they did. The US supported many evil regimes, supposedly because they were not communist. But a better question is whether it was reasonable prudence ? Just how much – in retrospect – does the Ogre of the Soviet Union and the Cold War forgive ?

Was the Soviet Union evil – or just the other side of the coin ? Yes, the US was more democratic. Still : it did have the Mc Carthy witch hunts. It executed the Rosenbergs for “leaking” nuclear secrets – as though there were no smart Russians who could figure it out themselves. It withheld treatment for Syphilis to a group of US Blacks ( The Tuskegee Experiment ) just to see what would happen.

The Soviet Union locked up political prisoners in lunatic asylums when it wasn’t shipping them off to Gulags in Siberia. It held nations under an iron grip, invading Czechoslovakia on a whim. It helped India with a smallpox outbreak to add to its viral store. It put nuclear reactors on board its spy satellites, constructed underground factories to continue making atomic bombs after the first exchange, and had environmental disasters worse than any in the US. Still, I’m sure many people lived satisfying lives.

The US did seem to have a lead over the Soviet Union – but it wasn’t that big a lead. On that basis, the US response was not justified. But it was a result of the paranoia at the time. I’m not sure whether we can say the paranoia was “justified” in retrospect.

The Vietnam War : course, motivations and the Chomsky view

Windshuttle claims the US “was not defeated militarily”. Well, maybe they caused a lot more casualties. But Vietnam could accept its casualties a lot more easily than the US, and the US did not meet its objectives. It may have been “forced to withdraw” rather than being “militarily defeated” – but, sorry, stating the bleeding obvious : the US lost. It was not ever ”close to winning”.

The (then) “New Vietnam Scholarship” of the 1980s saw that the North Vietnamese were effective not because of their administration, but rather because of the nationalism and bravery of individual soldiers and their willingness to accept casualties. After the war, cracks in the administration started to show. Fair enough. There’s more to why the North Vietnamese were effective. But they were never ineffective; it gives no support for the more outlandish claims made by Windshuttle and others.

Its claimed Chomsky and others beat the drum, and “raised the political costs to an intolerable level”. Alternatively, perhaps Chomsky’s views originally fell on deaf middle class ears; only after they realised for themselves the cost in lives did things change.

There’s been lots of hand wringing over whether the Vietnam War was a mistake, or something “fundamentally wrong and immoral” – it drives the criticism of Chomsky. It’s not just what he believes, but his affront to the past. But, even if the war were winnable, this does not mean it was right. Many critics believe fighting communism was and will always be worthwhile. It’s magic dust which makes Vietnam a noble venture in retrospect.

(I’m committing the sin of looking at the motives of the writers. I hope I’m doing penance by also working through the ideas properly. )

There was never going to be a “domino effect”. Were the people of South Vietnam abused ? Was “North Vietnamese Aggression” a global affront ? Were people denied democracy ? Were they unfairly condemned to an inept administration ? Whatever else you can say, the North Vietnamese Government did not use terror to motivate its citizens and soldiers. Rather, it seems to have been nationalism and a rejection of colonialism. Who was the proper custodian of pre-colonial Vietnam ? The North Vietnamese Communists could draw on history and had a better claim than the Western powers. They did not want to militarily spread communism into other nations, as per the “Domino Principle”. China and Russia may have had their own agendas, but they overlapped with a push that was limited to Vietnam.

In Iraq, Saddam terrorised his own citizens, and his invasion of Kuwait had no similar historical basis. Vietnam reinvented itself, and is now vibrant and open – something that’s clear from “Destination Saigon” by Walter Mason. Its problems cannot be solely laid at the feet of the Government.

The Pentagon Papers provide an insight into the Vietnam War. And while we are talking about “Perceived US self interest” – of which the logic may have been flawed – it does not seem Chomskian “elites” were involved either. Still, US portrayal of the Vietnam War – and many other ventures – shows manipulation and duplicity. This is shown in the Pentagon Papers and, more recently, Wikileaks. There’s the litany of brutality and indifference to civilian casualties and “collateral damage”. We can therefore take little the US says at face value. It hides behind a cloak of ambiguity and a lack of hard evidence. The US will “deny” because it can, not because whatever-it-is didn’t happen.

But for all this deceit, the “real story”, if there is such a thing, is more than is told by Chomsky or his critics. In the range from “A principled stand” to “a mistake” to “fundamentally wrong and immoral”, however, I’m more towards “fundamentally wrong and immoral”.

Military actions since Vietnam

Chomsky’s emphasises the contrast between Timor and Cambodia. However, there are numerous examples of the US supporting evil Governments throughout the world – Argentina and Chile – and then there’s their takeover of Diego Garcia – not to mention taking responsibility for the toxic pollution from their overseas bases and the crimes of personnel there – the Philippines being one notable example.

The US supported Contras through selling drugs illegally – not endorsed by the whole administration. That suggests the US is not a homogeneous entity with foreign policy so neatly determined by an elite.

Most commentators (including Windshuttle) do not even bother to disagree on this – they ignore it, focusing on how Chomsky ignores their favoured abuses. I guess it makes them even. Still, while US enemies might be committing abuses, at the same time the US and friends could still be committing ones of their very own.

Why does the US support such Governments ? Chomsky sees it resulting from a “concentration of power”, with the US being pretty much irredeemably evil. He does sometimes qualify himself, and maybe brings himself back from the brink. However, I ( along with Russil Wvong and others) disagree on the why. We imagine some combination of naivete, arrogance, mindless optimism and ruthlessness. However, Chomsky’s “US exceptionalism” is also valid. And while the intent may be sound, the execution could be ham fisted.

The US does have a dubious litany. However, that contrasts to another record – the removal of Milosevic from Belgrade, and some attempt to sort out Somalia and Afghanistan. And it may be possible to see some good intent in Iraq. The US can do good, with their excesses resulting from “idiocy” and “arrogance”, but not necessarily malice, and not necessarily from Chomsky’s “centres of power”.

Focusing on the US ?

Chomsky is criticised for focusing on the US. He claims this is the area he can most influence. The US might cause – say – just 2% of global violence – but to reduce this would be worthwhile. He seems to acknowledge the sins of the USSR, but sees no point in engaging with them.

As noted earlier, so long as it does not distort your analysis, it’s a very reasonable choice to make, to focus on what’s most morally proximate. We have a closer moral proximity to some actions. We focus on cruelty to animals caused by humans, not other animals. For gazelles, the experience of cheetahs hunting them would be very cruel. But quite reasonably – we don’t dwell on it. We focus on the cruelty to cattle sold from Australia to and slaughtered in Indonesia, but not to other cattle bought and sold around the world. We therefore focus on the US, because they’re allies, not because their sins are globally distinctive.


Israel deserves scrutiny – not because its actions are globally distinctive. There’s far worse in African and other dictatorships – or even the Kosovo war. However, we’re allied to Israel (some issues with passports at present); Israel is in turn also allied to the US. I’m only talking generally, not about details. Too much of a can of worms.

Still, being fair, much criticism of Israel portrays it as “globally unique and significant” (which I’d disagree with), rather than it just having greater moral proximity.

Chomsky has some valid points about Israel. I’ll grant it a prerogative to continue within internationally recognised borders. I’m reluctant about a “right to exist”, because I don’t like using “rights” language on anyone. A developed moral theory give us constraints to voluntarily take on – like the “Precepts” of Buddhism – but doesn’t give us “rights” we can beat others around the head with. Within limits, though, “rights” can help us understand injustice in the world.

But wait, there’s more. The Australian Government maintains trade relations with a whole swag of dubious Governments. Not good – but just trading partners – at least not allies. It’s a topic I’ve considered separately – without mentioning Israel.


Maybe there were worse dictators. Maybe it was the US – not to mention France and others – who previously supported Hussein. Maybe more people died through the intervention than Hussein would have killed otherwise. But – even after all that – if we could reduce the number of horrible dictators in the world, and reduce the violence in one nation – Iraq – wouldn’t that be worthwhile ? Echoing Chomsky’s argument – it would be good to reduce violence by the US a little – and also violence caused by others. It was a worthy goal. Pity about the execution. Corporate interests – or maybe just stupidity ?

Notably, Christopher Hitchens supported the intervention because of past US involvement – being humble, meek and “reely, reely sorry” – wanting to “clean up your own mess” – but this was from Hitchens, not the US Government. (Bill Clinton did say the US was wrong to have supported military forces during the Guatemalan Civil War – not something you hear very often.)

And Australia. Before the Iraq campaign, Howard could have put a few smart people in a room. Surely someone would have said : “Now after you invade – this bit about there being an internal coup – with Hussein being replaced with something you can negotiate with – what if that doesn’t happen ? Do you have a contingency ? It could crumble into civil disorder – looting and perhaps violence and rioting ? Maybe you should task some units with securing cultural assets like museums, not just economic assets ?”.

But no. So much for due diligence. Howard, misguided and eager to please, swallowed Bush’s line – “don’t worry about it mate – she’ll be right”. Bush mentioned Howard three times in his memoir, while Howard gave Bush a whole chapter. Bush had the line down pat – he obviously understood Howard. You don’t get to be President of the US for nothing.

Still, we shouldn’t feel all bad. The UK Government fussed over WMDs (ahem), but they didn’t ask the right questions either. Remember Clare Short – who changed her mind a few times ? For all her mixed feelings, greater involvement from her might have turned things around. Maybe the right questions would have been asked. Maybe there would have been no Abu Ghraib.

Then there’s the US soldiers themselves, with a talent for annoying locals. At one stage the Pentagon had a program for “embedding” anthropologists and other social scientists in military units. Some academics snubbed the program. But maybe they’ve learnt to do more than just wave their guns around.

Some US soldiers live down to the stereotype. But there are the soldiers who worked in orphanages in their own time, or the principled ones who were trying to relate to the people around them, seeing their lives and motives. I feel for them. I feel for the Kurds whose lost so many and whose lives were changed for the better. But I also feel for those who have fallen victim to death squads trained by the US government, or those people going about their daily lives who have been subject to attack.

And, picking over the moral wreckage of the Iraq War, we find a nugget, reported by Hitchens. The US wanted support from Turkey, but they would have had to have let Turkish troops into Iraqi Kurdistan. So, the US declined Turkish help. Good on them. Makes up for those Contra death squads. Just a little bit, anyway.

So – we can see some good in the intervention into Iraq – though it is not without its problems. You can be critical of the intervention without embracing the whole Chomsky line.


Chomsky does identify conflicting elements in US foreign policy, which are worth engaging with. He is not, however, in possession of the full picture, any more than his opponents, and there are certainly flaws in his position. However, equally his critics seems to be skating over the truth, and seem to be not so much pursuing “the truth” as their own agenda.

However, to say that merely having flaws makes things utterly worthless is an unrealistic standard of perfection. Chomsky is ultimately doing worthwhile things, and he deserves credit. He may not have the truth, but he is certainly contributing to it. He’s a worthy recipient of the Sydney Peace Prize.

John August is the President of the NSW Humanist Society.

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