He's popular on the left, but these days Chomsky is barely more popular in media-dominant neoliberal and neoconservative circles than is, say, Paul Gottfried. I can recall reading long articles by Chomsky in the LA Times in 1975-76 denouncing the Ford Administration for giving the greenlight to Indonesia to take over the decolonized Portuguese colony of East Timor (which look prescient in retrospect), but it doesn't appear that the LA Times has published anything by Chomsky in the last three years.
Still, a not implausible dual case can be made for Chomsky’s importance:
- As a scientist-philosopher, his work in linguistics going back to the late 1950s in which he attacked the dominant behaviorist assumptions of the time and implied the existence of a human language instinct had a crucial liberating effect on science, marking the return to a more realistic balance between nurture and nature.
- The ascent of America to the status of world's only superpower over the last 20 years just makes Chomsky's relentless critique of American foreign policy that much more relevant. Americans like to think of the U.S. as the plucky underdog, but, these days, we're the overdog.
Moreover, Chomsky’s negative critique of American foreign policy isn't much weighted down by his positive ideology -- which his former colleague Steven Pinker calls a sort of romantic left anarchism, epitomized briefly by the kind of spontaneously forming local workers’ collectives that Orwell saluted in Homage to Catalonia -- which seems too quaint to take seriously as a threatening alternative.
To this, I might add that Chomsky’s functional prose style probably doesn’t lose much in translation. And, of course, his default anti-Americanism is popular with non-Americans and unpopular with Americans.
Chomsky’s perspective on American foreign policy is, roughly, that nothing much has changed over the last century since, say, the Taft Administration. Just as Washington pushed around Latin American banana republics a century ago for the benefit of American business interests, so Washington pushes around the rest of the world today, and for similar reasons.
Chomsky’s standpoint is helpful. After all, if the U.S. found it rational to behave like that in the pre-ideological age of the early 20th Century, why wouldn’t it also behave like that in the post-ideological age of the early 21st Century? We know a lot about how Great Powers traditionally act, so why should all that knowledge be useless today?
At minimum, I would argue (Chomsky, of course, argues much more), the Greatest Power throws its weight around to dissuade Lesser Powers from throwing their weight around. Yet, even that it is seldom admitted in the neolib-neocon-dominated mainstream media. Instead, American muscle-flexing is due to the threat posed by Taliban sexism or whatever.
There is one successful alternative model to the Washington Consensus of globalist capitalism: what might be called "national capitalism," which worked well in East Asia. For that matter, tariff-protected national development worked well a century and more ago both in the Robber Barons' America and in Bismarck's Germany, which Chomsky often points out. To take a random example, here's a 2007 Harvard Crimson article where he sounds like a more politically correct Pat Buchanan:
Asserting that the U.S. had high tariff levels up through the 1950s, Chomsky attacked today’s global economic system for having served to transfer wealth from developing nations to the developed world.
He argued that the West had grown rich by relying on tariffs and industrial policy, and that whatever economic growth the developing world had seen following World War II had resulted from their use of similar protectionist trade policies.
“When these measures were banned during the neoliberal period of the 1970s, growth rates in the developing world decreased dramatically,” Chomsky said.
He said that if African nations want to achieve higher rates of economic growth, they should “look to the East Asian Tigers in the 70s and 80s, who expanded economically by violating the [World Trade Organization] rules.”
Still, Chomsky's can't get too excited about the success of, say, Samsung because of his old-fashioned quasi-Titoist workers' collectivist ideology. He worked on an Israeli kibbutz as a youth (where he was disturbed by the pro-Stalinist sympathies), and he remains, in some ways, The Last Kibbutznik.
In the mid-1980s, the South Korean Hyundai and the Yugoslavian Yugo both went on sale in the U.S. The Hyundai was bad, but not as awful as the Yugo. You'll notice that Hyundai is still around but the not the Yugo (nor Yugoslavia, either). Chomsky's economic theory is the Yugo of ideologies.
Nevertheless, you don't have to be a great fashion designer yourself to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
On the other hand, Chomsky can be rather naive about American power. Although he denies it, he often sounds rather like the tsk-tsking twin brother of advocates of "realist" foreign policy who overly reify Great Powers as if each were a single person playing the game of Risk. This was convenient simplification in, say, the days of Louis XIV ("L'etat, c'est moi"), but it's a misleading way to think about the shambling way foreign policy comes about in contemporary America. In Chomsky's mind, the real power is always "the multinational corporations," even in situations like the Iraq Attaq where the oil companies were unenthusiastic.
In Chomsky's view, for example, the American imperial dog must be wagging the Israeli tail for self-interested economic reasons of state -- any alternatives are too ridiculous to consider. Hence, Chomsky often sounds like Testing 99 / Whiskey / Evil Neocon, credulously repeating neocon talking points about how Israel must be highly useful to America: Israel is America's "cop on the beat" in the Middle East, etc.
You've got to admit that the Israeli tail wagging the American dog would be pretty ridiculous. What's even more ridiculous is the reality that so much of American foreign policy is influenced less by Israelis, who, after all, at least tend to be well-informed and clear-eyed about their own interests, but, as Francis Fukuyama pointed out when Charles Krauthammer accused him of anti-Semitism in 2005, by Israeli wannabes!
Chomsky's views on the evolution of Jewish opinion are insightful:
And you can date the beginning of the enthusiastic support for Israel in the culture pretty well, since 1967. Before 1967, the intellectual community was skeptical about Israel or uninterested in it. That changed.
If you look at Norman Podhoretz's book Making It, a kind of self-advertisement that came out in 1967, there is barely a mention of Israel. ...
That's when you start getting concern about the Holocaust. Before that, when people could have actually done something for Holocaust victims -- say, in the late 1940s -- they didn't do anything. That changed after 1967. Now you have Holocaust museums all over the country. It's the biggest issue, and you have to study it everywhere, mourn it. But not when you could have done something about it.
The Occam's Razor explanation for the change in Jewish-American attitudes in 1967 is that everybody loves a winner. Just as I haven't invested much of my ego in the sad fortunes of the Rice Owls college football team over the years since I graduated from Rice (but I did get interested last year when they went 10-3!), American Jews didn't invest much of their egos in Israel while it was in danger of getting crushed. Once the Jewish State was no longer at risk of defeat, however, Jewish-American egos got tied up in its continued dominance. After 1967, Israel became for many American Jews what the Notre Dame football team had been for American Catholics.
For Chomsky, however, it's always about the military-industrial complex, the oil companies, and class, and not about ethnicity:
There was a lingering concern that the Arabs might want to use the [oil] wealth of the region for their population, not for Western wealth and power, with a little bit raked off for the gangsters that run the countries. That's a major threat.
So, Israel smashed Nasser and destroyed the threat of secular nationalism. ... That's a major threat. Israel finished that, which firmed up the U.S.-Israeli alliance and led to a very quick change.
But, Chomsky's logic doesn't make sense on realpolitik grounds even on a simple post hoc, ergo propter hoc basis: the logical time for a U.S.-Israel alliance against Nasser would have been before Nasser was humiliated, not afterwards. For example, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were close allies when fighting Hitler, then diverged sharply after he was defeated. That's logical. The post-1967 American Jewish love affair with Israel isn't logical, it's emotional.
Now, you could make the argument that in 1969 Richard Nixon conspired with his chief advisors, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry Kissinger, to portray Israel as central to the Cold War to persuade some American Jews to be more pro-American and anti-Soviet, which indeed paid off with the rise of neoconservatism. But that doesn't have much to do with oil companies, so I doubt if Chomsky's much interested in it.
In summary, Chomsky has obvious obsessions that weaken his logic, but he remains a bracing controversialist.