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The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy
by Noam Chomsky
(Click for Amazon book review)
BOOK REVIEW by OnTheIssues.org:
This book is an indictment of the United States government for war crimes in the Iraq War from 2002 until 2006. The author, Noam Chomsky, then elaborates the long history of U.S. war crimes, and how anti-democratic forces accomplished the current status quo. Chomsky has written numerous other books about U.S. war crimes, but this one ties together the components that oppose democracy. As usual, it's a pretty complicated argument, but one that should be familiar to Chomsky fans.....
Chomsky parses what has become known as "American exceptionalism" and concludes that it is hypocrisy; Chomsky parses that Bush's "pre-emptive war" is just another way of saying "might makes right." Chomsky doesn't often use the term "American exceptionalism" in this book except to criticize it as a euphemism. He does use the term "pre-emptive war" (preferring "anticipatory self-defense") but says it is a false term, based on political posturing and hypocrisy.
American hypocrisy is described in great detail, starting with dismissing the term "double standard." There is only ONE standard, says Chomsky; which could be summarized as "Do what the U.S. and our allies say." The hypocrisy comes about because that has, for decades, not been matched by "Do what the U.S. and our allies DO." Chomsky's primary examples focus on nuclear arms, where the U.S. and allies can have them, but the rest of the world cannot.
Chomsky's opinion on George W. Bush's "pre-emptive war" focuses on historical context. According to Chomsky, the term is new to Bush, but the concept is not at all new. The first instance of "pre-emptive war" was President Andrew Jackson's justification of his invasion of Florida of 1818, which was hotly disputed by President John Quincy Adams at the time on the grounds that it unconstitutionally gave the power of war to the President rather than the Congress. That debate, according to numerous historical examples provided by Chomsky, has continued ever since, won over and over by those favoring "pre-emptive war" and Presidential declarations of war.
Chomsky carefully differentiates the U.S. government from the American people; he reiterates in several contexts how public opinion polls disagree with U.S. government actions. Those include the 2002 invasion of Iraq; the use of torture in Iraq and elsewhere; the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emissions; and the War on Drugs. In all of those cases, the U.S. government acted on grounds of "national interest" but that really did not mean "the American people's interest" but instead meant "government interests" (which Chomsky equates with big business interests and interests of the military-industrial complex).
The source of our current woes is a self-imposed "historical amnesia" to avoid learning from lessons of the past where the same policy produced negative results. "History" to Chomsky means citing dozens of examples of US intervention in Latin America; he updates his usual list with Hugo Chavez in this book. It is a powerful indictment of U.S. policy but has been consistently ignored for years by both the mainstream political parties and the mainstream media. That, of course, is the reason Chomsky has long been a critic of mainstream political parties and the mainstream media.
What about war crimes? Chomsky applies that term to Bush in the Iraq War (and to Israel in the West Bank) but mostly provides historical examples rather than immediate accusations. For example, he cites Nixon's instructions to bomb North Vietnam: "Anything that flies, on anything that moves" -- which Chomsky claims caused as much a holocaust in Vietnam as the Holocaust of WWII. Presumably Chomsky would like to indict Bush for war crimes in Iraq, but the facts have not yet been made fully public. (Chomsky bashes "classification" (secrecy) too, on the grounds that it only protects the status quo.)
So what is the underlying cause? That is answered in the chapter on "democracy at home" -- which means its failure at home --- which focuses on corporatization. All democracies are set up to protect opulence, says Chomsky -- "free men" are democracy's focus, not poor men -- both in colonial America and in prior democracies. The political parties, and the U.S. government, are set up for "dedicated service to privilege and wealth."
Why not throw just the bums out? After all, we have elections. But Chomsky points out the underlying flaws of U.S. elections at the presidential level, focusing on the 2004 election (Bush vs. Kerry). The problem, says Chomsky, is that market-driven advertising determines political outcomes, in the same manner as applied to toothpaste ads: campaigns focus on candidate image and their "values" rather than issues. Even issues like "terror" are just marketing about values, rather than about policies.
What is the evidence for that? Chomsky cites numerous polls that the American public is to the left of both Bush and Kerry. For example, 70% of Americans are for green energy, and a majority are for defense cuts -- both of which would not have been accomplished regardless of the outcome of the 2004 election. Ignoring public opinion is always at the benefit of the powers-that-be, and to the detriment of the general population. That is especially true on international issues like acceptance of the International Criminal Court and other U.N.-related organizations -- the public is ignored -- subsumed to corporate interests.
That leads to Chomsky's well-worn theme: that elections hardly matter: "If one is flipping a coin to select a king, it is of no great concern if the coin is biased." That's an old theme adopted by Ralph Nader and the Green Party, but it just doesn't ring true. There's little question that, had Kerry won in 2004, the U.S. would have been more involved in U.N. organizations; would have been more focused on green energy, and would have cut some defense spending compared to Bush. That's the same sort of complaint that people had about Nader -- that asserting that the two major parties are identical just isn't true.
Overall, this is one of Chomsky's best works. It serves as an introduction to Chomsky's elaborate theories of democratic failure, and to Chomsky's (involved and somewhat tedious) historical analysis. Most importantly, it ties those two themes to modern politics. This book is not a "must-read" for voters -- it's just too hard to read for that -- but it IS a "must-read" for those who want to understand how the U.S. government foists "institutional deceit" upon the American population and gets away with it.
-- Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief, OnTheIssues.org, April 2013
The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy
by Noam Chomsky.
Page last edited: Dec 18, 2018