Emma Brockes's interview with Noam Chomsky in The Guardian continues to reverberate. I have sent this email today to the newspaper's editor, Alan Rusbridger.
Dear Mr Rusbridger,
I see that Noam Chomsky has accused The Guardian and Emma Brockes of having conducted a “defamation exercise” against him. Having read Professor Chomsky’s complaints in his letter to your newspaper and in his statement at the weekend, I recommend you discount them. You have already provided him with the courtesy of your columns to press his case, and there is little further you either can or ought to do to mollify him.
Professor Chomsky is liberal with his charges of ‘invented contexts’, but he is vague in stating what the inventions comprise. The sole specific charge he makes concerns Ms Brockes’s rendering of his views on the Bosnian war and Srebrenica. On my reading of Chomsky, Ms Brockes’s account was fair and reasonable editorial comment. Chomsky does not work by frontally denying that human rights violations take place; his technique is instead to diminish the moral significance of crimes committed by opponents of the Western democracies. The use of tendentious and sometimes outlandish analogies (e.g. the US is in need of ‘denazification’; former US Ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan advocated Nazi-like policies; violence under the Khmer Rouge was more like the vigilante killings in post-Liberation France than the genocide of Nazi Germany; 9/11 was no worse than Clinton’s bombing of a pharmaceuticals factory in Sudan, in which a nightwatchman died) is a staple of Chomsky’s political argument. The cumulative effect is to debase the currency of moral condemnation of Nazism, Khmer Rouge genocide, and Islamist terror. Chomsky's comments about Serb atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo fit this pattern. In his latest book of ‘interviews’, Imperial Ambitions, 2005 (p.127), Chomsky states: “If civilians managed to flee Falluja, they were allowed out – except for men. Men of roughly military age were turned back. That’s what happened to Srebrenica in 1995. The only difference is the United States bombed the Iraqis out of the city, they didn’t truck them out. Women and children were allowed to leave; men were stopped, if they were found, and sent back. They were supposed to be killed. That’s universally called genocide, when the Serbs do it. When we do it, it’s liberation.”
This has been a consistent line in Chomsky’s references to Serb war crimes. In his 1994 book of ‘interviews’ The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, he gives a tortuous explanation couched in the language of Hurd-like pragmatism on why it was “not so simple” to bomb Serb encampments. He then refers to the notorious war criminal Arkan by comparing him to Western leaders, before adding hurriedly, "It doesn't absolve him in any respect, of course." It is a perfectly defensible proposition, and one Ms Brockes is entitled to advance, that the whole tenor of Chomsky’s argument is to temper the notion of Serb atrocities by the habitual rhetorical device of pronouncing the US as guilty of comparable and greater crimes.
The same approach characterises Chomsky’s references to the Kosovo war. His book A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West (2000) contrasts what he sees as the hypocrisy of western responses to East Timor relative to Kosovo. Not every charge Chomsky makes against US foreign policy is wrong (and the East Timor case was a shameful piece of US Cold War realpolitik): what is wrong is Chomsky's deployment of these cases to soften culpability for Serb atrocities. That seems to me the only proper characterisation of his insistence that “KLA actions (possibly with CIA involvement) [were] designed to elicit a violent and disproportionate Serbian response" (p. 114) and evidenced a “tactic of provoking massacres to elicit Nato intervention” (p. 112).
Let me turn now to Chomsky’s remarks on the Diana Johnstone book Fool's Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato and Western Delusions (2003). Chomsky says: “I did express my regret: namely, that I did not support Diana Johnstone's right to publish strongly enough when her book was withdrawn by the publisher after dishonest press attacks, which I reviewed in an open letter that any reporter could have easily discovered.”
The open letter he refers to is published on the Internet here. Like everything else I have cited, it falls squarely in the category of minimising Bosnian Serb crimes - not by denying they took place but by deflating their moral significance. Chomsky refers to “terrible but much lesser crimes of Racak and Srebrenica” as compared with East Timor, and he disputes the use of the term genocide. He describes Ms Johnstone’s book as having been “very favorably reviewed, e.g., by the leading British scholarly journal International Affairs, journal of the Royal Academy” and this point is clearly important to him. He buttresses it with this coda: “I don't read Swedish journals of course, but it would be interesting to learn how the Swedish press explains the fact that their interpretation of Johnstone's book differs so radically from that of Britain's leading scholarly foreign affairs journal, International Affairs. I mentioned the very respectful review by Robert Caplan, of the University of Reading and Oxford. It is obligatory, surely, for those who condemn Johnstone's book in the terms just reviewed to issue still harsher condemnation of International Affairs, as well as of the universities of Reading and Oxford, for allowing such a review to appear, and for allowing the author to escape censure.”
I am attaching a pdf file of the reviews section of the March 2003 edition of International Affairs, against which you can check Chomsky’s account (the relevant review is on p. 453). Aside from his careless errors (International Affairs is the journal not of the Royal Academy, which is an arts organisation, but the Royal Institute of International Affairs; the review’s author is Richard, not Robert, Caplan), Chomsky scarcely gives a reliable account of Caplan’s review. Caplan does give credit to Johnstone for stressing that atrocities were committed not only by the Serbs, and for that reason describes the book as ‘well worth reading’. But Caplan states baldly: “The book also contains numerous errors of fact on which Johnstone, however, relies to strengthen her case. For instance, the 1996 SIPRI yearbook (an 'authoritative source'), which she invokes in support of her claim that the number of people killed in the Bosnian war has been exaggerated, actually offers the higher estimate (250,000) that she challenges (p. 55). … Johnstone herself is very selective. She omits any discussion of Milosevic's own assault on the constitutional order (by abolishing Vojvodina's and Kosovo's autonomy); of the irregular if not extra-legal means he employed to remove the political leadership of Vojvodina, Montenegro and Kosovo; or of the extensive materiel and other support he provided to some of the most vicious Serb militias in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
As you will be aware, Chomsky’s manipulative use of source material is one of the principal charges made against him by academic historians and other critics. If you examine the letter he has sent to you, the material he has published elsewhere castigating your colleagues, and the review I have attached, you will gain an insight into why this is. Chomsky describes as ‘a very favourable review’ a sceptical article, written in the diplomatic language of Chatham House, that faults Johnstone for precisely the charge that Emma Brockes raised in her interview with Chomsky: downplaying Serb culpability for the horrors of the Bosnian war. In the circumstances I believe the proper course for The Guardian is clear: to reject Chomsky’s complaints, and accept the praise that you deserve for running one of the few probing interviews that Chomsky has encountered in recent years.
UPDATE: The Guardian did not reject Chomsky's complaints, a matter on which I shall have detailed comments shortly in light of the matters set out above.