• Print

‘Who Rules the World?’: An Exchange

In response to:

A Case Against America from the June 9, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

I am sorry that Kenneth Roth found the book of mine that he reviewed, Who Rules the World? [NYR, June 9], “infuriating.” I have of course looked with interest at his reasons, but do not find them convincing.

His first case charges “sloppiness” in my observation that the Obama administration was considering reviving military commissions while in fact they continued to operate. The observation was accurate: it referred, explicitly, to what the Obama administration was considering in 2009, citing the news reports of May 2009.

The second example is that I was “simply confused” in quoting Jessica Mathews [NYR, March 19, 2015], attributing to her the view quoted “when in fact she was criticizing that perspective.” Roth does not take into account the sentence that immediately follows the passage we are discussing. It reads: “At its extreme, this reasoning holds that the US should not be bound by international rules….” Mathews does indeed criticize the “extreme” perspective that she describes, which is clearly and explicitly distinguished from the “non-extreme” position that I quoted and attributed accurately and properly. The text elsewhere contains no qualification. If there is any interest in further details, I will be glad (with his consent) to release the extended correspondence in which the New York Review editor repeatedly made the same point, and I responded in detail.

Roth’s next point is that my “preoccupation with American power seems out of date” because its limits are so apparent—as I discussed at considerable length, but with what seem to me far more significant examples than the ones he gives. These raise their own questions. Thus it is hardly controversial (Fawaz Gerges, ISIS: A History, and many other sources) that “the emergence of the Islamic State” to which Roth refers is a direct outgrowth of what he calls a “blunder” but what I would prefer to call the major crime of this century, the US invasion of Iraq. Similarly, I never called the Russian invasion of Afghanistan “a blunder” (though it was); rather, a crime.

I won’t continue, but if anyone is interested in other cases mentioned, I’ll be glad to consider them.

Noam Chomsky
Cambridge, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

As a longtime reader of The New York Review who first became acquainted with the writing of Noam Chomsky when reading his 1967 article about the responsibility of intellectuals, I was pleased to see Kenneth Roth’s review of Who Rules the World? I believe this was the first of Chomsky’s books to be reviewed in these pages since The Fateful Triangle was published over thirty years ago. Hopefully, the review will introduce new generations of readers to Chomsky’s arguments and analysis.

I want to take issue with one criticism Roth makes because it actually brings into focus one of Chomsky’s major points about the responsibility of American citizens when it comes to the actions of our government.

It is very easy (and rewarding) for Americans to look with a gimlet eye upon the failings of other nations and political figures, say, for example, to identify the criminality of a dictator like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as Roth does in his review. Americans who write critically about such individuals can always expect a warm and respectful hearing from the political, journalistic, and intellectual gatekeepers. Chomsky’s point has always been that citizens of any country have a unique responsibility to be critical of their own country’s actions because, depending on the political form prevalent in the country, these citizens have the most influence over (and responsibility for) the actions of their own government.

If we live in a country (or are citizen-expatriates), we pay taxes to finance the activities of our government. If the country has democratic forms (a free press, competitive free elections) then the actions of the government can, at least in part, be laid to active support (or at least acquiescence) on the part of the citizenry. Unlike totalitarian societies such as the former Soviet Union, American citizens have enormous personal freedom—especially the freedom to fully inform themselves. With this freedom combined with the potential to actually influence what the government does (unlike in the former Soviet Union or, to give an example from Roth’s review, modern-day Syria) comes extraordinary responsibility.

It is from this position of responsibility and personal freedom that Chomsky has written critically about US government policy for over fifty years. It is why his omission of condemnations of the role of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin in today’s Syrian conflict is not a failing of his book or his approach. Chomsky may be prolific in his criticisms of US foreign policy, but he has never set himself up as a one-man Amnesty International. As an American seeking to awaken his fellow citizens to US policies for which in some way we are all responsible, he certainly has done more than his fair share of good works, as the substance of Roth’s review makes clear.

Michael A. Meeropol
Cold Spring, New York

Kenneth Roth replies:

Noam Chomsky takes issue with my criticism of his one-dimensional focus on what he sees as America’s nefarious role in the world. If Chomsky had entitled his book “America’s Evil History,” I would have accepted his exclusive focus. However, he entitled it “Who Rules the World?” yet goes on to write as if the United States is virtually alone as the cause of all the world’s problems.

Chomsky cites the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, which he says is “a direct outgrowth” of George W. Bush’s invasion. There is no doubt that the invasion and subsequent occupation and dismantling of the state were a disaster that greatly contributed to the rise of ISIS in Iraq, where it now controls the country’s second-largest city, Mosul. But that ascendancy is also the product of many other factors, such as the discriminatory and abusive laws and policies against Sunnis by the government of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Its indiscriminate bombing of Sunni areas and other sectarian abuses after the withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011, well before the rise of ISIS, led many Sunnis to see ISIS as a lesser evil.

Other factors include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s targeting of civilians in opposition-held parts of his neighboring country, breeding antipathy that helped to encourage the rise of ISIS there and provided a base for operations in Iraq; Iran’s, Russia’s, and Hezbollah’s backing of Assad’s indiscriminate attacks; funding for ISIS as well as extremist interpretations of Islam emanating from the Gulf; and Turkey’s border policy allowing jihadists to join ISIS.

Chomsky doesn’t mention any of this. History did not stop with US crimes in Iraq. Nor in an increasingly multipolar world can the United States control everything.

Chomsky also disputes the sloppiness I found in his book. Much of it is due to his decision to compile a series of his essays without bothering to date or update them. According to a “publication history” included in an advance copy of the book but omitted from the published version, many of the essays had appeared previously, over half on a website called TomDispatch. Chomsky notes there that the chapters earlier appeared “in somewhat different form” but the unspecified modifications evidently did not include changing arguments that are now out of date. And there is nothing in the published version of the book to let the reader know the reason for including these dated arguments. The result is a disjointed reading experience.

For example, Chomsky makes repeated references to what he perceives as a misguided and overblown US response to the Iranian nuclear threat (pp. 50, 81–82, 131, and 140–141) but doesn’t mention the July 2015 nuclear deal until p. 218. Similarly, Chomsky’s claim that the Obama administration was considering reviving the Bush military commissions in Guantanamo, made on p. 40, is never updated in the remaining 250 pages to explain that Obama has in fact used them, to much detrimental effect, during most of his tenure in office. Yes, a reader checking footnotes could have found a May 2009 citation for Chomsky’s assertion about the military commissions and surmised that it may no longer be true, but a less sloppy (or lazy) approach to the book would have filled in that crucial subsequent development.

One might justify publication of a series of dated essays if their dates were clearly indicated and the book were billed as an exposition of Noam Chomsky Thought as it has evolved. The book purports to be a study of the current world order but does not analyze each topic addressed in light of the most up-to-date information.

As for Chomsky’s claim that Jessica Mathews was embracing instead of criticizing the view that the US government advances “universal principles” rather than “national interests,” I simply refer the reader to the tenth paragraph of her review in the March 19, 2015 issue of The New York Review (available online), where to most other than Chomsky her meaning is obvious in the midst of a critique of unilateralism as opposed to the multilateralism that she prefers. Chomsky seems to find her next sentence to favor his interpretation—“At its extreme, this reasoning holds that the US should not be bound by international rules”—when in fact she is providing an added reason to reject the misguided unilateralists.

As for Michael Meeropol, I agree with his point (and said so in my review) that Americans have a special responsibility to press their government to act in more principled and defensible ways. That has rightly been a longtime concern of Chomsky. However, by dwelling on only the negative, his latest book leaves the impression that America can do no good—that withdrawal and isolationism are the best we can hope for.

I do not accept that implicit prescription. Given the enormous evil done by some other nations, and the proven capacity of the United States sometimes to mitigate that harm, I would have preferred a more holistic and nuanced assessment of America’s part in the world. That would help readers understand not only how to deter American misconduct but also how to encourage positive American conduct. We need to do both.