The New Statesman this week carries an interview with Noam Chomsky. The interviewer is one Andrew Stephen. I don't blame Chomsky for having plainly taken advantage of a soft, credulous and entirely incapable interlocutor.
Stephen shows how ill-equipped he is immediately by observing that "critics exult in dismissing [Chomsky] as (take your pick) a fraud, a Zionist, an anti-Semite (he is Jewish), an off-the-chart commie, an agent of the CIA, Mossad, the KGB, MI6 and so on". It makes you wonder whom Stephen has spoken to. We critics charge Chomsky with a few, broad and serious charges. He is not an antisemite or an "off-the-chart Commie". He is politically a sophist, a nihilist and a quietist, whose writings are a parody of scholarly inquiry and whose handling of source material is an intellectual scandal. Stephen at least has the prudence to introduce a crucial weasel-word in his encomium (emphasis added): "Chomsky's unremitting clarity and his seeming mastery of detail somehow defy interruption or argument, but they are wondrous to behold."
Let's take a look at that semblance of mastery. Here's Chomsky explaining to Stephen the iniquities of Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999:
The bombing was undertaken with the anticipation explicit [that] it was going to lead to large-scale atrocities in response. As it did. Now there were terrible atrocities, but they were after the bombings. In fact, if you look at the British parliamentary inquiry, they actually reached the astonishing conclusion that, until January 1999, most of the crimes committed in Kosovo were attributed to the KLA guerrillas.
Chomsky makes this assertion about an unnamed British parliamentary inquiry quite often. Both the Foreign Affairs and the Defence select committees of the House of Commons issued reports on the Kosovo engagement. You'll find that furious critics of that war, such as Isabel Hilton in The Guardian, read the Foreign Affairs Committee's report (published on 23 May 2000) closely, yet oddly made no reference to the "astonishing conclusion" that Chomsky refers to. That's because it isn't there. The report (paragraph 55) says the exact opposite of what Chomsky claims: "[T]he Kosovo Albanian population ... were suffering greater atrocities than the Serb population (and KLA attacks were mostly focussed on Serb policemen, while Serb action often focussed on unarmed civilians)..." (In a spirit of disclosure that is alien to Chomsky's political writings, I should add that there is a footnote appended to the sentence I have just quoted, referring by way of counterexample to a case of the murder of six Serb teenagers.)
I believe I have found what Chomsky is referring to, in the Defence Select Committee report (published on 23 October 2000). It is not a conclusion, but a direct quotation from the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook (paragraph 35):
The Foreign Secretary told the House on 18 January 1999 that— "On its part, the Kosovo Liberation Army has committed more breaches of the ceasefire, and until this weekend was responsible for more deaths than the [Yugoslav] security forces."
This is not at all the same statement as that "most of the crimes committed in Kosovo were attributed to the KLA guerrillas". For a start (paragraph 34), it refers to a specific and brief period - the three months after the agreement secured by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, on 16 October 1998, in which Belgrade would withdraw its military and police forces to "pre-crisis levels". But what makes Chomsky's use of this quotation disgraceful and dishonest is that, as well as attributing it to the inquiry rather than the Foreign Secretary, he omits what it refers to and why it was said. The significance of Cook's reference to "this weekend" is clear from the parliamentary debate in which he said it. The debate was held on a Monday. That weekend, reports had emerged of the massacre at Racak, in which at least 45 unarmed civilians were murdered by Serb paramilitaries. The victims included women, several elderly, and a child. One of the victims was decapitated.
Chomsky knows this (he delicately alludes to the massacre as as "a single exception" in the charge sheet against Milosevic at the Hague, in predating the Kosovo war). It is, to say the least, highly relevant to what he falsely describes as a "conclusion" to the inquiry (but is in fact a contemporary statement by the Foreign Secretary), to the reckoning of moral culpability by the protagonists in the conflict, and to the reasons that Nato resolved upon a bombing campaign to repulse Serb aggression. So Chomsky leaves it out, the better to misrepresent his material and prettify his political record.
The next time you hear someone proclaim Chomsky's disinterested support for human rights and opposition to oppression, recall that, so far as the Balkan wars of the 1990s are concerned, this is not his position at all.
The next time you find a journalist impressed by Chomsky's "seeming" mastery of detail, remember this. Every time Chomsky makes a claim or a reference, you need to check it independently. Again and again, you will come up against the conundrum that the man who is allegedly the world's top public intellectual cannot be trusted to give an honest and reliable account of his sources.