Stimulated by the Guardian diarist's interest in the matter, I'd better get round to the promised comment on Noam Chomsky's interview posted this month on the ZNet site. The interview is conducted by a Lebanese journalist, and coincides with Chomsky's visit this month to Lebanon and the publication of his latest book, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy.
I have been reading Chomsky's political output for a long time, and I'm modestly pleased to find that I am not so inured to the master's reasoning to fail to be surprised by his judgements. For example, the reason Nato bombed Serbia in 1999 was, according to the interview, that "Serbia was not adopting the proper social and economic reforms". Go and check, if you think I've manufactured this fantastic and pitiful assertion.
Chomsky claims certain knowledge on this point from "the highest level of the Clinton administration". We must therefore assume - which is why I believe that normal canons of political debate break down at this point, as they must when conspiracy theories enter the discussion - that the administration intended its pre-1999 approach to Kosovo to appear irresolute and Micawberish, the better to lure Milosevic into inadvertently creating a pretext for Nato's economic aggression. Certainly the pretence was well disguised. It extended even to the desultory attempt by Richard Holbrooke, Clinton's special envoy for the Balkans, in October 1998 to broker an agreement with Milosevic whereby Serb forces would end their attacks on Kosovars (hundreds of thousands of whom had fled their homes). As Ivo Daalder (who served on the National Security Council staff as director for European affairs in the mid-1990s, and was responsible for coordinating US policy for Bosnia) and Michael Hanlon wrote in their study of the Kosovo War, Winning Ugly (2000, p. 23):
[W]hatever Nato commitment existed to enforce compliance with [the agreement's] terms was effectively nullified by the decision to deploy unarmed monitors to the region. Consistent with US and European efforts throughout the crisis, the Holbrooke mission was one more indication that the aim was less to find a viable and lasting solution to the conflict than to push the final reckoning as far into the future as possible.
The begetter of that final reckoning, without whom no Kosovo War would have taken place, was Slobodan Milosevic. He was the author, if not the agent, of a campaign of terror against ethnic Albanians.
Chomsky's conspiracy theories take increasingly startling forms, but they are not an aberrant feature of his work. It's always been like this. Later in the interview, for example, he sketches his view of the history of post-war transatlantic relations:
If you look back over the past decades, a major concern of US policy –and it’s very clear in internal planning—is that Europe might strike an independent course. During the cold war period, US was afraid Europe might follow what they called “a third way,” and many mechanisms were used to inhibit any intention on the part of Europe to follow an independent course. That goes right back to the final days of World War II and its immediate aftermath, when US and Britain intervened, in some cases quite violently, to suppress the anti-fascist resistance and restore tradition [sic] structures, including fascist-Nazi collaborators. Germany was reconstructed pretty much the same way. The unwillingness to accept a unified neutral Germany in the 1950s was predicated on the same thinking. We don’t know if that would have been possible, but Stalin did offer a unified Germany which would have democratic elections which he was sure to lose, but on condition that it would not be part of a hostile military alliance. However, the US was not willing to tolerate a unified Germany.
Let us leave aside for a later post Chomsky's fabulous assertion about the final days of WW2. This is quite a recent claim of his, making its first appearance in a New Yorker profile of him in 2003. The claim about Stalin's German diplomacy has a longer pedigree in Chomsky's catalogue of tendentious historical counterexamples, having been first advanced, I believe, in Deterring Democracy, 1991.
What Chomsky is alluding to (though he does not call it this) is the so-called Stalin Note of 1952. Chomsky depicts it as a proposal that, if implemented, "would have eliminated whatever military threat the Soviet Union might have posed to Western Europe" but also crucially entailed "no ready justification for US intervention and subversion worldwide". It thus stands in a history of "apparent opportunities to reduce the threat of superpower confrontation" that the West spurned. Chomsky adds darkly: "For years these matters were off the agenda; even to mention the facts was to risk being castigated as an apologist for Stalin. By 1989-90, however, Stalin's proposal could be cited quite freely in the press and journals." The reason it could now be discussed, according to Chomsky, was so that an apparently new proposal by Mikhail Gorbachev for a neutral reunified Germany could be dismissed as well-worn. (Quotations from Deterring Democracy, pp. 24-5.)
It is astonishing and faintly scandalous that a serious publisher (Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House) was found for this farrago, and that it is still in print. If Chomsky believes that the Stalin Note was "off the agenda" till the end of the Cold War, then he must pay scant attention to German historical debate. The historian Rolf Steininger argued forcefully in his book Eine Chance zur Wiedervereinigung? Die Stalin-Note vom 10. März 1952 that the West missed a genuine opportunity with this proposal. The book was published in 1985, when no one had any conception that the Berlin Wall would fall in the same decade. So far from being dismissed as Stalinist apologetic, Steininger's book was treated quite properly as a thesis to be examined on its merits. As it turns out, Soviet and East German archive material released in the 1990s has not dealt kindly with Steininger's argument, and has largely substantiated the view that Stalin had no intention of accepting a genuinely democratic unified Germany. So Chomsky's claim that Stalin's diplomacy was a "secret history" in the West till unification is wrong, while his assertion that "we don't know" if a unified and neutral Germany could have been obtained is, like any historical counterfactual, literally true, but heedless of recent historical research.
But the essence of Chomsky's political approach is revealed in another facet of this issue. In his comments about the Stalin Note in Deterring Democracy, Chomsky says that the notion of a unified Germany free to join Nato was "a demand that the Russians could hardly accept a few years after Germany alone had virtually destroyed the Soviet Union". It is extraordinary that, being so solicitous of the victims of German aggression, Chomsky should fail to mention the view from a nation that had been defeated and occupied in WW2. France had a perfectly reasonable, because historically grounded, fear of a repeat of the Rapallo agreement of 1922 or the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. A united and armed Germany that was formally neutral but in practice influenced by the Soviet Union would have been an intolerable threat. (The Note proposed that a neutral Germany have sufficient armed forces "for the defence of the country"; this was a useless because largely subjective criterion.)
Why does Chomsky not mention the reasonable security needs and legitimate apprehensions of a Western democratic nation? Because to read Chomsky on history is to be in the presence of a propagandist and not a scholar. On the back of my edition of Deterring Democracy is an encomium to the author from John Pilger, which reads: "This book ... ought to be required reading in schools and newsrooms for it cuts through the often subtle propaganda about our times...." As a sociological case-study of entirely unsubtle propaganda - sanitised official history as it might have been written if the wrong side had won the Cold War - Chomsky's writings may indeed merit a place in schools and newsrooms. I do my utmost to discover in Chomsky's political writings any other redeeming characteristic, and I must tell my readers that I ceaselessly fail.