Before Smearing Chomsky, Try Reading Him

Noah Smith launches a facile attack on Noam Chomsky’s foreign policy scholarship that demonstrates some common failures of comprehension. 

Esteemed linguist, foreign policy critic, and Current Affairs subscriber Noam Chomsky was recently declared online to have passed away. This was fake news, originating on Twitter, that nobody bothered to verify before spreading, with several publications even posting prewritten obituaries. It was a good opportunity to remember Chomsky’s argument that you should be skeptical of everything you read online, especially Twitter, which he said he refused to look at because it “doesn’t tell me anything.” 

Blogger Noah Smith—rather tastelessly, in my opinion—seized the moment to write an attack on Chomsky’s work, which he called an “obituary for Chomsky’s ideas on foreign policy.”1 It is very poorly researched and repeats a number of illogical and ignorant tropes that are commonly found in criticisms of Chomsky. But it provides me an opportunity to clear up these erroneous interpretations, so that no one need repeat them ever again. 

Before diving in, I should note that while my own style of responding to critics is usually more affable and empathetic (remember, I am proof that “not all Bernie Bros are angry young men”), Chomsky is known for being somewhat withering and dismissive toward those who attack him without showing signs of having read his work. I’m going to respond to Smith a bit more in the Chomsky vein, because Chomsky is unwell and can’t respond to his critics at the moment,2 and because I think Smith’s attack is about as dishonest and ignorant as a piece of writing can be. 

First, let’s remember that the usual practice among serious scholars making accusations is to provide at least one piece of evidence to support them. Smith does not do this. He argues that Chomsky’s foreign policy thinking is based around the central idea that “America is the sole agent of imperialism and conflict in the world.” Smith calls this idea “just wrong.” Indeed, it is just wrong, but it’s not clear what that has to do with Noam Chomsky, who has never said any such thing. Smith doesn’t present any quotes of Chomsky saying anything remotely like it. Smith does cite a random person on Twitter saying something fatuous about how if empires are against American imperialism, then you should support those empires. I would note, however, that Noam Chomsky, who thinks Twitter is worthless, has produced over 80 books on politics alone (in addition to at least 30 on linguistics), and if it’s Chomsky’s view that “America is the sole agent of imperialism and conflict in the world,” it should not be difficult to find him expressing this view. Smith presents nothing of the kind. He can’t, since it’s a fabrication of Chomsky’s views.

In fact, it’s a statement Chomsky would reject utterly for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has read his work. Smith has therefore made up a view and falsely attributed it to Chomsky, a serious act of intellectual malpractice. But I should not be surprised to read this coming from Smith, someone who thinks the minimum wage should be abolished and Donald Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. (Just kidding. In fact, Smith does not think either of those things, but he does apparently believe we can just make things up, accuse people of believing them, and cite nothing to show they actually do believe them. And so I assume I’m entitled to do the same.) 

Smith says that “America bad” is the “core of Chomsky’s foreign policy thought” (his emphasis) and that for Chomsky, “the U.S. is the villain in every drama.” He cites, for instance, Chomsky’s “defense of Putin,” claiming that Chomsky “defended Russia’s conduct of its unprovoked war of conquest in Ukraine.” As Carl Beijer points out, this type of criticism of Chomsky has been common for years, and he quotes several critics who have claimed, for instance, that Chomsky “blames the U.S. government for virtually every ill around the world” and thinks America is the “fount of evil in the world.”

It’s trivial to show that these claims are false. A few minutes of Googling and you’ll find records of Chomsky condemning Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds (a cause he has been involved with for a long time), attacking Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his Islamophobia and authoritarian tendencies, signing a petition condemning China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority, and accusing the Hugo Chavez regime in Venezuela of an “assault on democracy.” Here he is praising Iranian protesters who rise up against their regime (“the whole structure of the regime is oppressive and authoritarian and undermines basic civil and other human rights; and protesting against it is not only honorable, but courageous.”) Here he is supporting Soviet dissidents in the ’70s against their repressive government. Here he is criticizing Australian climate policy, and here he is condemning the right-wing Brazilian government of Jair Bolsonaro. I can find you Chomsky comments on Latin American dictatorships, apartheid South Africa, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, French imperialism, the British empire, Saudi Arabia, Suharto’s Indonesia, Pinochet’s Chile, Franco’s Spain, and on and on. In fact, once when I brought up the long U.S. history of disguising crimes as idealism, he replied by cautioning that in this respect “We’re no different from others.” So the idea that Chomsky thinks the U.S. is the world’s only villain is a bald-faced lie. 

The error of thinking that Chomsky’s worldview is “America bad” does not come from a careful study of his work, but from a mistaken inference. (In my Chomsky-mode, I would describe it as an “utter failure to grasp the most elementary logic.”) From the fact that most of Chomsky’s political writing consists of criticism of U.S. foreign policy, critics infer that he believes other countries do not commit crimes, or are not aggressive and expansionist, or are somehow “good.” But he has clarified over and over again that his focus on the U.S. cannot and should not be taken to imply excuses for the crimes of others. Instead, as Beijer notes, he talks primarily about the U.S. because he believes we have a primary responsibility to expose and stop our own government’s crimes:

 

I restrict myself to the discussion of American terror…because I feel that we have some responsibility about it….I don’t talk about, you know, I’ve never written about the terror carried out by both sides in Nigeria let’s say. I don’t like it, obviously, but I don’t see any point in my giving them good or bad marks for it. On the other hand, if we were carrying out the terror, I would very definitely write about it.

 

This would be obvious in any other context. If a Russian or Iranian dissident wrote nothing but books about Russian or Iranian crimes, we would not assume that because they don’t write about other countries, their “worldview” is “Russia bad” or “Iran bad,” or they thought their countries were the source of all the world’s evil. And we would see immediately that anyone who did accuse them of this, rather than responding to their arguments and evidence, was either very, very stupid, or simply trying to smear and discredit them. To talk much more about your own country’s crimes is perfectly legitimate—and, Chomsky would argue, morally obligatory.. Chomsky explained this well in the ’80s to David Frum, who similarly accused him of being less interested in crimes committed by other countries. Frum picked a bad example (the persecution of the Kurds, whom Chomsky had been publicly supportive of for years), but Chomsky pointed out that we should care more about our own crimes, because they are our crimes, and if we are responsible for 2 percent of the world’s violence, because it’s the violence we can most easily stop, it’s okay if it occupies 100 percent of your attention. I’ve always thought that Chomsky should explain this more, because it’s such an important rejoinder to the most common criticism of his work, but he thinks it’s such an elementary, obvious point that it basically shouldn’t even need spelling out. (One of my major differences of opinion with Chomsky, actually, is that I think things that “shouldn’t” need spelling out nevertheless do need spelling out.) 

So it’s wrong to conclude that Chomsky’s harsh criticisms of U.S. crimes mitigate or exonerate the crimes of others. But it’s also a mistake to think he believes there’s something uniquely pathological about the U.S., and people who assume this is part of his theory are missing the core of that theory. It’s important to understand that Chomsky is something of an anarchist, so he’s critical of state power generally. It would be peculiar for an anarchist to think violence by the state was bad in the case of the United States’ actions but good in the case of, say, the Soviet Union’s actions, which is why anarchists were always harshly critical of Soviet repression. Chomsky, as I’ve noted, was no exception. He has said that the country Reagan called an “Evil Empire” “was in fact evil, was an empire and was brutal,” and his analysis of the Cold War is that “each superpower controlled its primary enemy—its own population—by terrifying it with the (quite real) crimes of the other.”

Chomsky’s anarchism leads him to an unconventional analysis of the Cold War—that it was not a contest between “capitalism” and “communism” but between two empires that had a mutual interest in pretending the conflict was primarily ideological. If one thinks his worldview is “America bad,” one will entirely miss his actual theory, which is that states (not just the United States) tend to sociopathically pursue what they call the “national interest,” but which is usually just the interest of domestic elites. Now, it’s possible to criticize this theory, but to criticize it you have to understand it, and if you think it has anything to do with some unique American pathology, then you haven’t grasped what he’s saying: his explanation of why the United States government acts as it does follows from his understanding of how states act generally. (I should add, too, that to say he’s criticizing “America” is itself an error, because he’s actually writing about U.S. state power and argues that U.S. leaders act contrary to both the interests and desires of the population at large.) 

 

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Does Smith cite any evidence to support his understanding of what Chomsky’s views are? He mentions a couple of things. He says, for instance, that Chomsky “airily dismissed the stated humanitarian justification” for the bombing of Kosovo. Now, Chomsky lays out evidence that the humanitarian arguments made to the public departed from the actual policy goals, in two books The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo and A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor, and the "Responsibility to Protect" Today.3 It’s notable that Smith, rather than responding to the case made therein, seems to think that the very fact of dismissing the stated humanitarian justification is proof enough that Chomsky is pathologically anti-American. 

Turning to one of Smith’s only other pieces of evidence, as proof of Chomsky’s “America bad” ideology, he cites the fact that Chomsky did not think that either the Gulf War or the 2003 Iraq invasion were “idealistic,” and Chomsky did not give George W. Bush any “credit” for sharing Chomsky’s criticism of Saddam Hussein’s crimes: 

 

Something seemed a little off to me about Chomsky’s arguments. In Deterring Democracy, Chomsky excoriates the U.S. for supporting Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, in his war against Iran. He cites Saddam’s use of chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds as proof of Saddam’s evil. And yet when Chomsky discusses the Gulf War, he dismisses the notion that American foreign policy became more idealistic after the Soviet threat receded. Instead, he argues that the purpose of the Gulf War was to maintain U.S. control over Middle Eastern oil. Obviously oil was part of the reason, but the large number of countries who supported Operation Desert Storm seemed to suggest that international stability was an important goal as well…. Chomsky was also a staunch opponent of the Iraq War a decade later. George W. Bush’s denunciation of Saddam Hussein closely echoed Chomsky’s own — “He gassed his own people!”, Bush thundered, in what could have been a line straight out of Deterring Democracy. But just as in 1991, Chomsky staunchly asserted that America’s claimed reasons for invading Iraq were lies, and that the true purpose of the war was to control oil supplies… Though Chomsky was right that the Iraq war was a bad idea, it's notable that he refused to give the U.S. any credit for turning on a dictator that he had previously criticized it for supporting. It was not the nature of America’s action in the world that drew his animus — it was the fact of American action itself. 

 

That last sentence is peculiar, given that Chomsky’s books covering U.S. actions in Iraq (such as Failed States and Hegemony or Survival) are exhaustively-documented critiques of the nature of U.S. action, very specifically documenting the harms that were done. Smith responds to none of the evidence. His argument is essentially that Chomsky’s criticisms arose because America was doing something, not because Chomsky objected to what was being done. But for this argument to be made effectively, we would need proof that there were not sound reasons to criticize “the nature of America’s action.” 

Smith offers no such proof. He knows, and essentially admits, that the U.S. war on Iraq was indefensible, although he tries to soften it by calling it the “misdirected lashing out by a superpower psychologically wounded by a terror attack.” (In fact, as Chomsky and I documented at great length, the evidence shows that this was not a kind of irrational lashing out. The Bush administration very deliberately misstated and massaged existing intelligence to manipulate the public into a war.) Smith’s evidence that Chomsky’s view is “America bad” is that Chomsky doubted the noble motives of both wars with Saddam Hussein. In fact, Chomsky has provided evidence that the U.S. approach to Saddam was consistent and never based on idealism: we supported his worst crimes and did not turn against him because of his brutality, but because he threatened U.S. interests. The evidence is compiled in our forthcoming book The Myth of American Idealism but is also readily available in Chomsky’s prior works, including the book Smith claims to have read, Deterring Democracy.




 

But what about Chomsky’s “defense of Putin”? That might indeed be evidence that Chomsky thinks “the U.S. is the villain in every drama,” if Chomsky had ever made a “defense of Putin.” In fact, he has described Putin’s invasion as “the kind of war crime for which Nazis were hanged at Nuremberg, a crime of aggression comparable to the US invasion of Iraq and the Hitler-Stalin invasion of Poland.” The only evidence offered is an interview with the New Statesman in which Chomsky noted that Russia’s destruction in Ukraine was more restrained than U.S. destructiveness in Iraq. This is not a defense of Russia, but a variation on one of Chomsky’s common points: if we (rightly) condemn an adversary country for some crime, why do we not condemn and put our own leaders on trial when they commit worse crimes?

Smith’s passage on Russia is in fact very odd in its reasoning: 

 

The defense of Putin, in particular, shows how “America bad”, rather than any economic theory of geopolitics, is at the core of Chomskyism. Regarding the Cold War, or America’s wars in the Middle East, Chomsky could at least make a superficially plausible case that U.S. actions had economic motivations — opening up new markets, or controlling oil supplies. But Vladimir Putin’s Russia was already wide open to U.S. exports before the war — it was only U.S. sanctions in response to the invasion that pulled these companies out of Russian markets. And the war also caused oil prices to spike, due to the temporary disruption of Russian supplies. Furthermore, Putin’s regime is a capitalist one, with many of the trappings of fascism. No matter — Chomsky simply ignores economics and assumes that the U.S. opposes Russian conquest purely out of a desire for hegemony. Socialism, and its attendant materialist interpretation of conflict, is more peripheral to Chomskyan theory than anti-Americanism.

 

As we have already seen, there is no “defense of Putin” either stated or implied, in what Chosmky has written on the subject. But this passage is a thick knot of additional stupidities. It’s incredibly peculiar. Smith explains that a crude “materialist interpretation of conflict,” such as the kind he would expect a “socialist” like Chomsky to apply, does not successfully explain U.S. policy toward Russia. Then he says that Chomsky doesn’t apply such an “economic theory of geopolitics,” which must mean that instead of being a socialist, he is simply anti-American. It’s an interesting move to criticize a theory that Chomsky doesn’t apply and then seemingly criticize him for not applying it. 

Now, first, one reason that Chomsky doesn’t apply the crude “materialist interpretation of conflict” is that Chomsky doesn’t believe in applying crude theories and is not a Marxist. But also, Smith does not put forth the actual argument that U.S. economic interests (rather than a principled belief in helping Ukraine) drive its policy toward Russia. Smith waves away any such notion by pointing to the fact that Russia was open to U.S. businesses before the war and isn’t now, but all you have to do is open the pages of the Wall Street Journal to read about how the war in Ukraine is good for the American economy and the defense industry in particular. (A fact noted by Smith himself!) Chomsky’s argument is not that Putin was justified in invading, but that the U.S. knowingly took actions it knew would make an invasion more likely and declined to try to facilitate a diplomatic settlement, in part because a long war in Ukraine, while it might be terrible for Ukrainians, is actually good from the narrow perspective of “U.S. interests.” 

 

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Smith also dredges up material that Chomsky co-wrote with Edward S. Herman about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which has long been used to paint Chomsky as a genocide denier. I don’t think Chomsky and Herman’s writing here holds up well, although if you write continuously for 50 years about every topic in foreign policy, people are almost certain to be able to find a bad piece, and it’s telling that critics always go back to this same 1977 article. The central point of Chomsky and Herman’s work, though, which they elaborated on in Manufacturing Consent and The Political Economy of Human Rights, was not to defend the Khmer Rouge but to show how different standards were used in the U.S. to decide which atrocities to care about, which allegations to take seriously, and which crimes merit outrage. Chomsky points out that the Khmer Rouge were helped into power by the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, and we actually supported the Khmer Rouge after they were ousted from power, with the U.S. government officially denying that the Pol Pot genocide was a genocide. In fact, the U.S. government has far more actual direct responsibility for the Khmer Rouge horrors than Noam Chomsky, who has, as far as I can tell, never defended or supported an atrocity. His offense in the Cambodia case was being too slow to recognize the extent of the killings and too skeptical of the most extreme reports, although because exaggerated atrocity reports about enemy states are extremely common it’s good to approach them carefully. It’s an error, but again, Chomsky is an anarchist who does not support concentrated state power and is horrified by totalitarian regimes.

Some of Smith’s swipes at Chomsky are almost too desperate to bother refuting. Here, he tries pure “guilt by association”: 

 

In fact, Chomsky’s core commitment to this idea has given him some other strange bedfellows in recent years. Chomsky’s insistence that NATO expansion was to blame for the Ukraine war exactly echoes John Mearsheimer, even though Mearsheimer styles himself an amoral “realist” and has endorsed U.S. hegemony and deterrence of rival powers. Chomsky’s position on the war also agrees wholeheartedly with the anti-Ukraine narrative on the political Right that has been pushed by Tucker Carlson and embraced by Donald Trump. The fact that Chomsky agrees with a man he once called “the worst criminal in human history” does not give him the slightest pause. Criticism of America’s actions takes precedence.

 

Of course Chomsky does not have “the slightest pause” in agreeing with Trump on any given point, for the obvious reason that whether or not something is true has nothing to do with whether Donald Trump agrees with it. If Donald Trump says the Iraq war was a mistake, and I say it was a mistake too, am I making “strange bedfellows”? Who cares whether Trump or Carlson agree with me? The question is whether the analysis is correct. If John Mearsheimer’s “realist” view of international relations reaches the same conclusion as Chomsky, the question is whether Mearsheimer and Chomsky are right. Heck, Chomsky and Henry Kissinger reached similar conclusions about the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Yet Chomsky also thinks Henry Kissinger is a genocidal nutcase. Only the most mindlessly reflexive partisan would be troubled by having their beliefs on a particular issue coincide with the beliefs held by someone whose other beliefs they despise.

 


 

Two other absurdities stand out in Smith’s article. First, he makes the rather strange argument that Chomsky’s views on foreign policy have been some kind of consensus position. He says Chomsky “defined our thinking on foreign policy for a generation.” I call this strange, because I’m not sure who “our” is supposed to refer to. Certainly not the people who actually made foreign policy, because Chomsky has been consistently critical of those people and has almost no influence with them. (Has any U.S. federal elected official, other than perhaps Bernie Sanders, read any Chomsky?) If you want to see the views that “define our thinking on foreign policy,” you’ll find them in the Atlantic Council, the columns of Thomas Friedman and Bret Stephens, and the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine. Smith says that “Chomsky’s argument that the Iraq war was all about oil…defined both elite and popular opposition to” the war. But note: opposition. Chomsky’s work has indeed shaped the foreign policy thinking of the left, but the left are marginal in this country. People with power generally hold views much closer to Smith than Chomsky. 

Let’s finally just note what the stakes of the discussion here are, which are far more important than just an argument over the legacy of a particular intellectual. Smith argues that we need to bury Chomsky’s writing on foreign policy because China and Russia are bent on world domination (“the era when China and Russia have the power to create a global empire has begun”), and the noble United States must serve as a “spoiler of empires” lest “allies in Asia and Europe fall to the ‘anti-imperialist empires’ of China and Russia.” The countries of the world are crying out for us, they “desperately want U.S. protection,” and we must protect the world and maintain freedom, stability, order, etc. (Note that the hyperlink Smith gives there does not go to a source saying that these countries “desperately want U.S. protection.” The source does, however, say that the surveyed countries regard the U.S. as far more likely to interfere with the rest of the world than China.)

Now, the Chomsky argument is that China has not, in fact, shown signs that it is bent on becoming a global empire, although it does seem to want to reduce U.S. power in Asia. Chomsky would also argue that many steps interpreted and portrayed as examples of Chinese “aggression” are in fact responses to actions the U.S. takes that we regard as defensive but China regards as aggressive (the classic “security dilemma” of international relations). I believe that Chomsky would argue that the history of U.S. foreign policy shows that if we see ourselves as the savior of nations, we are far more likely to (in our arrogant self-righteousness) bring about a destructive war than to actually save anyone from anything. That’s certainly what I would expect to happen if Americans started thinking like Smith, who is constantly arguing that we need to prepare for World War III with China. (Robert Wu argues here that Noah Smith is “clueless about China” and that the idea that China is expansionist is not grounded in factual reality. It is instead a fantasy projected onto China by those who seem like they would enjoy getting to blog about World War III while others fought it.) Chomsky’s argument is that America would benefit from believing less in its own God-given duty to save the world through threats of violence and killing people, and more in diplomacy, cooperation, and international law. He advances this claim with painstaking evidence across dozens of books (working with him on this new one, I was impressed anew at the sheer volume of source material he has amassed). But his critics, instead of engaging with any of it, think “Chomsky thinks America is bad” is enough. 

This is a disgrace. It shows how debased our political discourse is. Political commentator David Atkins called Smith’s essay a “brilliant, and, I would say, definitive evisceration of Chomskyism.” If this is the best possible evisceration of Chomsky, then his legacy is secure, but if this constitutes brilliance, we’re in trouble. It means standards are so low that we can’t expect people to even discuss basic facts or adhere to simple principles like “argue with the things people have said, not the things you imagine them to have said.” Smith’s tasteless “obituary” for Chomsky’s ideas on foreign policy just invents a cartoonish version of those ideas, which is that “America is bad.” Smith is not just wrong, he is a fabricator of Chomsky’s views, an intellectual offense worse even than plagiarism, because it’s so harmful to its subject. A minimally honest writer would retract these false accusations, apologize for having made them, and cease to comment on the underlying issues until he has done sufficient research. 

A few years back, Norbert Hornstein and I wrote another piece on criticisms of Chomsky. There, we were dealing with two very different anti-Chomsky arguments, one arguing that a core part of his linguistics had been disproven and the other that he was some kind of unwitting tool of the military-industrial complex. In both cases, we showed that the critics simply hadn’t bothered to try to understand what Chomsky was actually saying. Chomsky responded to one of these critics who asked “What do you think of my criticisms of your ideas?” by replying “I don’t detect any criticisms of my ideas.” Noah Smith’s piece is more of the same. How does his criticism of Chomsky’s ideas hold up? There is no criticism of Chomsky’s ideas. 

ENDNOTES

 

1. Smith still hasn’t updated the part of his post (dated June 19) that says “as of this writing, it’s not yet clear whether Noam Chomsky has died,” which I think is irresponsible, because Noam Chomsky has not died and you should tell your readers as much.

 

2. Note that this means I don’t have any way of knowing if the arguments I make here are the ones he’d make.

 

3. I don’t want to go into that evidence here, since Smith isn’t even interested in it and those who do care about facts can consult the books, but Chomsky is paraphrasing a book that received the endorsement of Bill Clinton’s own deputy Secretary of State, which claimed that “It was Yugoslavia's resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform—not the plight of Kosovar Albanians—that best explains NATO's war."

 

4. Incidentally, while Smith cites the fact that other countries joined in the Gulf War as proof that it was not narrowly about U.S. interests, the U.S. is accused of doing considerable arm-twisting to obtain international support for the war, and, allegedly, “to secure votes, the U.S. paid multi-billion dollar bribes, offered arms for regional wars, threatened and carried out economic retaliation, forgave multi-billion dollar loans… offered diplomatic relations despite human rights violations, and in other ways corruptly exacted votes, creating the appearance of near universal international approval of U.S. policies toward Iraq.” The existence of a coalition does not, in and of itself, demonstrate that any given action is principled.

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