This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers. Click here for an all-in-one post.
In a piece titled “Scholars or Bamboozlers?,” Stephen Gowans discusses several lefty figures who embraced the 2011 NATO War on Libya, and their professed rationales for doing so. Gowans describes one of these pieces, Paul Street’s “Libya: the Left and Losing Our Way,” as an example of an author “making a case whose support was largely that his position was based on what Chomsky told him. He was hoping to earn instant credibility by exploiting the cognitive heuristic that makes you deem anything Chomsky says as probably true (or probably wrong if you dislike him) without actually having to do the leg-work to figure it out yourself.” Chomsky occupies this position for many people: one of Street’s commenters laments that “I’m a little upset with Chomsky being so relatively silent about this. His guidance on this issue has been sorely needed.” Street begins by placing his own position between the US State Department on one end and “the knee-jerk, almost self-caricaturing” “so-called radical left” that “says that it’s all about Washington’ desire to grab Libya’s oil” on the other. Street explains that his position is “significantly influenced by the reflections of the two leading left intellectuals on U.S. policy in the Middle East”: Gilbert Achcar and Noam Chomsky. In private correspondence, Chomsky informed Street that “the humanitarian talk is too cynical even to discuss,” and the “no-fly zone (NFZ) was from the first…a cover for participation in the rebellion.” Chomsky continued, “‘It’s a French and British affair, primarily, with virtually no international support, incidentally, in the region or beyond.’” This sounds critical enough so far, as Chomsky rejects ideas that the US’s motives were purely humanitarian and the idea that the war enjoyed broad international legitimacy. He continues, “The older colonial powers have led the way and the U.S. was ‘dragged in reluctantly,’ trying to ‘move into the background’ at a rapid pace—no doubt part of why Obama did not feel compelled to obtain authorization to use force from the U.S. Congress. There’s no prolonged U.S. occupation being planned, of course.” Street also points out that “the United States stayed with Gaddafi ‘until the last minute’ (Chomsky) – very different than its long-term demonization of evil Saddam Hussein…At the same time, the White House is certainly aware that, as Chomsky told me, ‘a massacre in Benghazi would have been blamed on Washington, something they didn’t want to face.’ Think like Obama from a realpolitik perspective on the potential deadly political consequences of letting Gadaffi move forward with a massacre: significant global and Western public outrage over standing to the side + a worsened economic situation exacerbated by an inevitable embargo = a no-brainer self-interested equation for ‘humanitarian intervention.’”
Chomsky’s position on Libya was publicly expounded-upon in a few other places. He argued that the NFZ was “cover for participation in the rebellion,” a rebellion which he elsewhere called “wonderful” and “liberation” (quoted in Max Forte’s Slouching Towards Sirte). Chomsky tacitly criticized the war for enjoying little international legitimacy, while presenting it as “a French and British affair, primarily,” which Washington was “dragged in reluctantly.” According to Chomsky, unlike Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Gaddafi enjoyed US backing “until the last minute,” and the US only intervened in order to stop “a massacre in Benghazi,” which would have been politically unpalatable for the Obama administration. In an interview from the same time, Chomsky reiterated that “Libya is rich in oil, and though the US and UK have often given quite remarkable support to its cruel dictator, right to the present, he is not reliable.” According to Chomsky, the prime motivator for intervention was the fact that “When a non-violent uprising began, Qaddafi crushed it violently, and a rebellion broke out that liberated Benghazi,” which faced an imminent “slaughter” at the hands of Qaddafi’s forces, which would have reflected poorly on the White House. Chomsky was asked if there are grounds for progressives to support the destruction of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. He replied that “In the case of intervention by [NATO in Libya], the burden is particularly heavy,” but “it would be too strong to hold that it can never be satisfied in principle” and that “Preventing a likely massacre in Benghazi is no small matter, whatever one thinks of the motives.” Chomsky concluded that post-war Libya would likely be composed “an oil-rich Eastern region heavily dependent on the Western imperial powers and an impoverished West under the control of a brutal tyrant with fading capacity, or a victory by the Western-backed forces.” Chomsky advised that “Those concerned for peace, justice, freedom and democracy should try to find ways to lend support and assistance to Libyans who seek to shape their own future.”
Chomsky’s counsel on the Libyan War is quite remarkable for the broad strokes with which it corroborates the official story. For something coming from America’s most strident foreign policy critic, there sure is a lot of repetition of the mainstream narrative going on here. Beyond his existing reputation, Chomsky’s radical credibility is conferred by impugning the US’s motivation for intervening, which he says have more to do with resource exploitation than saving lives. However, Chomsky accepts that saving lives will be a by-product of a NATO war—as Street argued, Operation Odyssey Dawn accomplished a genuine “humanitarian intervention,” just one motivated by a “self-interested equation.” Here as elsewhere, Chomsky adheres to the demonology school of foreign policy, reducing the Libyan state to “Qaddafi” and deriding him as a “brutal” and “cruel dictator,” one who was about to massacre an initially non-violent, democratic opposition movement. Though he frames it as part of a long discussion on Western perfidy, Chomsky tentatively concludes that while “the burden is particularly heavy” and NATO’s motives are not angelic, a NATO war would stop a “slaughter” and rescue the freedom fighters trying to save Libya. In other words, despite the hand-wringing, Chomsky differs from Samantha Powers mostly to the degree that they have faith in Washington’s declared motivations. In various venues, Chomsky’s positions are usually comfortably aligned with the status-quo. The idea that the US is not motivated by pure humanitarian idealism, but by naked self-interest, is not a new perspective. This is the cornerstone of so-called foreign policy “realists,” one of the three prominent intellectual trends in American Empire-maintenance (along with liberal interventionists and neoconservatives). Prominent foreign policy realists include Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and Robert Gates; and the Obama White House has been full of such functionaries. Even liberal hawk Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, admitted that the goal was regime change, rather than protecting civilians, halfway through Operation Odyssey Dawn. Chomsky supports the idea that American wars can sometimes achieve humanitarian ends; he merely argues that ulterior motives are at play. Chomsky also ratifies the idea that Washington was a reluctant participant in the Libya War (after all, according to Chomsky, Gaddafi was essentially a US ally). This idea was pushed by the White House itself, which claimed to be “leading from behind.” In a recent legacy-crafting interview for The Atlantic, Obama himself blamed France and the UK once again for the “shit show” of turning Libya into a failed state, offloading responsibility onto Paris and London. To summarize, regardless of his radical reputation, Chomsky’s positions largely echo those of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, CFR head Richard Haass, and President Barack Obama. So nothing that the great dissident is espousing here is outside the mainstream—in fact, much of it is literally establishment wisdom.
The worst thing Chomsky has to say about the War on Libya is that it will provide preferential conditions for Western investors. However, Chomsky fails to delve into the specifics of what exploitation by the imperialist powers entails. The description of life under a brutal, putatively genocidal regime is sketched out in stark terms; life as a neo-colony of North American and Western European ruling interests is relatively bloodless. Where Chomsky is nondescript about post-intervention societies, Michael Parenti describes in great factual detail what awaits the citizens of countries post-regime change. After the murder of Gaddafi, Parenti posted a list to his Facebook page of “16 Things Libya Will Never See Again.” While Chomsky doesn’t burden himself with any facts about Libya’s social welfare system whatsoever, Parenti actually explains the deprivation that will follow the victory of the new Western-backed regime. Parenti reminds his readers that “1) There was no electricity bill in Libya; electricity was free for all its citizens, 2) There was no interest on loans, banks in Libya were state-owned and loans given to all its citizens at zero percent interest by law, 3) Having a home was considered a human right in Libya, 4) All newlyweds in Libya used to receive $60,000 dinar (U.S.$50,000) by the government to buy their first apartment so to help start up the family,” and so on. In other words, where Chomsky presents the victory of Western investors in vague and antiseptic terms, Parenti unequivocally presents it as the human rights tragedy that it is. As Parenti told an interviewer for Russia Today: “There will be a massive privatization taking place. The public economy that the Gaddafi government had built over 40 years, which included public subsidies for housing, for education, for healthcare—all those things will be privatized. The oil fields will be handed over to private companies for private profit. Death squads will come in to clean up those who might still have a commitment to a social wage or a communal wage. This is what we have to look forward to, and that was the real intention.”
Every subsequent year has further vindicated what Paul Street called the knee-jerk, almost self-caricaturing so-called radical left, and brought further shame to the ambivalent progressives who took their cues from Chomsky. The impending Benghazi bloodbath-story sold by Washington via Chomsky was as fictitious as Kuwait’s incubator babies. Equally fictitious was the idea that Gaddafi had become a darling of the West, an idea that likely assuaged many progressives’ concerns about intervention. Journalist Dan Glazebrook calls this “a myth.” While Street and others derided those that defended the Jamahiriya as a local bulwark against imperial meddling, leaked emails revealed that this was precisely the thinking in the NATO capitals. In France, a major factor behind the war was plans for a pan-African currency based on the Libyan gold dinar, which Paris perceived as a threat to its African sphere of influence. Stephen Gowans observes that Western investors strongly objected to the Jamahiriya’s efforts to “Libyanize” the economy, making the fruits of Libya’s wealth redound to its people instead of foreign investors. Rather than “leading from behind,” the vaunted rapprochement with Libya allowed the United States to begin funding and arming the local al Qaeda branch, who would become many of the NATO shock troops that Chomsky and others hailed as freedom fighters. The outcome was one that Chomsky failed to predict: Libya was converted from a country with the highest GDP per capita and standard of living on the African continent to a failed state ruled by several armed factions including ISIS. While Chomsky foresaw no long-term occupation, the NATO presence in the country continues to grow.
Chomsky’s many fans might chalk his Libya commentary up to a momentary misfire, but it fits in with a larger pattern. In recent years, Chomsky has incorporated the lessons of the 1999 Kosovo War into his repertoire. As a result, defenders of that war label him a “Milosevic apologist,” while last year he was honored by Serbia for pointing out American hypocrisy (there’s gold in those hills). However, Jared Israel argues that in 1999, Chomsky “criticized” NATO by largely repeating the mainstream narrative with a few changes. Israel points out that this lent his comments a critical air while “Chomsky’s description of events is essentially the same as that of NATO commander Wesley Clark.” When pressed on this point by Israel in an email exchange, Chomsky points out that “in the past 10 years the Milosevic regime has committed many crimes,” eventually deriding his interlocutor as “completely beyond any rational discussion.” Those who would speculate that Chomsky was chastened by the experience of Libya (or learned some lesson) would do well to read a 2015 exchange concerning Syria. On the blog “The Wall Will Fall,” Jay Therappel posts an email exchange with Chomsky regarding the War in Syria, which is similar in both tone and content to that between Chomsky and Israel on Yugoslavia. As in Libya, Chomsky has largely adhered to the US State Department line; Therappel’s email exchange began when he pressed Chomsky on the professor’s claim that the Syrian Arab Army had played a minor role if any in fighting ISIS—Chomsky claims that the Syrian Army’s primary goals has heretofore been killing civilians. When pressed on a point relating to his position, he claims that “Assad’s own objectives are to stay in power no matter how many Syrians he kills and how much damage he does,” refers to the Syrian government as the “vicious” and “monstrous Assad regime,” and exculpates the US’s role in Syria as “rather ambiguous.” To an unsympathetic onlooker, it appears as though Chomsky misunderstands one point—possibly willfully—and then fixates on it in order to obfuscate his position, while imputing all manner of bad faith to Therappel. Though his position on Syria is more superficially ambiguous than on Libya, Chomsky claims thatforcefully implementing “No-fly zones, humanitarian corridors, support for the Kurds, and some other measures would be likely to be helpful.” In other words: bombs, bombs, and support for local proxies.
Stephen Gowans explains that “Noam Chomsky’s gravitas is based on his reputation as a high profile linguist, his connection to MIT, and his prolific book-writing. A short-cut to evaluating whether what he says makes sense is to refer to his credentials. Wow, a guy like this must know what he’s talking about.” On the latter point—Chomsky’s prolificacy—there’s not a lot of evidence that voluminous scholarship is a pre-requisite for expertise. Parenti has written dozens of books and is not asked to comment on every new humanitarian war by In These Times and Pacifica. Several of these books debunk the myths built up around humanitarian wars—though as in the case of the Kosovo War, Chomsky refers to nearly every left-wing author except for Parenti. On the other end of the spectrum are the Molly Crabapples of the world, overnight experts on Washington’s designated enemies who boast little background knowledge prior to their ascensions. In other words, his past work is largely irrelevant, and the real sources of Chomsky’s prestige are his extant profile and his position at MIT—both of which just mean the position he has been granted by people in high places. Judging from Chomsky’s work in Libya, Syria, and to some degree Kosovo, it’s clear that this position is available to those who mostly hew to the State Department line. Criticisms like “the war is really about oil” are allowed, since commentators like Chomsky seldom go deeper than that and provide useful equivocations between the Empire and its targets.