Across the Bay

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Book Reviews

The NYT Sunday Book Review has a list of reviews of several books dealing with the Bush administration (Woodward, Clarke, Frum, et al.)

Included in there is a review by Harvard's Samantha Power (featured on this site before!) of the ever-predictable Noam Chomsky, and his most recent collection of rantings about US hegemony.

Power correctly captures a couple of essential Chomskian premises:

"For Chomsky, the world is divided into oppressor and oppressed. America, the prime oppressor, can do no right, while the sins of those categorized as oppressed receive scant mention. Because he deems American foreign policy inherently violent and expansionist, he is unconcerned with the motives behind particular policies, or the ethics of particular individuals in government. And since he considers the United States the leading terrorist state, little distinguishes American air strikes in Serbia undertaken at night with high-precision weaponry from World Trade Center attacks timed to maximize the number of office workers who have just sat down with their morning coffee.

It is inconceivable, in Chomsky's view, that American power could be harnessed for good. Thus, the billions of dollars in foreign aid earmarked each year for disaster relief, schools, famine prevention, AIDS treatment, etc. -- and the interventions in Kosovo and East Timor -- have to be explained away. The Kosovo and Timor operations' prime achievement, he writes, was to establish the norm of resort to force without Security Council authorization. On this both the Kosovars and the Timorese, whose welfare Chomsky has heroically championed over the years, would strongly disagree.

These by the way are premises that were shared by the late Edward Said, whose views were always close to Chomsky's. Kanan Makiya criticized both of them in his Cruelty and Silence when Chomsky rationalized Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and when Said practically denied the gasing of the Kurds. Both these positions become logical when you understand the premises underlying them. Michael Young has also suggested that in Said's case, the same premise was at work, i.e. viewing America through an invariably negative prism.

Paul Berman has also critiqued these Chomskian constants in his excellent, and highly recommended book (indeed imperative reading) Terror and Liberalism. Also, see this older critique by Christopher Hitchens.

In contrast to Chomsky's sleepy-time monotony, James Mann's The Rise of the Vulcans is a highly intriguing book on the history of the Bush war cabinet (Armitage, Cheney, Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz). The review is by David Greenberg. Greenberg concludes (similarly to Power's review of The Anatomy of Fascism) with a critique of Bush's willingness to use might over democracy (basically a parallel to the Roman terms of Empire vs. Republic). It seems to me however that Greenberg truly misses a central point of the Iraq war when he effortlessly brushes aside the democratization rationale of the Iraq war, and the Realism vs. Idealism debate:

"But it's also a unique history of how the Vietnam-era realpolitik of Nixon and Henry Kissinger gave way to today's pseudo-Wilsonian campaign to make the Middle East safe for democracy.


By tracing their stories back to the Vietnam years, Mann breaks through sterile debates about isolationists versus interventionists and realists versus idealists and offers a more useful framework.

On one side Mann sees the Kissingerian ''declinists,'' who after Vietnam believed American power to be waning. They struck deals with China and the Soviet Union and looked warily upon high-flown talk of spreading democracy. In contrast stand the Bush advisers, whom Mann refers to awkwardly as the ''Vulcans'' (a little-known insider label from the 2000 campaign). A better word might be militarists, since, as he notes, they all worked in the Pentagon and share a willingness, even eagerness, to use armed force to reach diplomatic ends. Their besting of the declinists -- and their climb to power -- organizes Mann's engrossing 30-year tale.

It's quite bizarre to read this from a man who wrote a book on Nixon. I also don't see how the centrality of Vietnam implies the conclusion that Greenberg draws! It certainly doesn't refute the other claims. Both these elements (Nixon and Vietnam) are at the center of the Realism vs. Idealism debate, and the nature of US foreign policy!

This is precisely how Paul Berman understood the first (and the second) Iraq war in his Terror and Liberalism, and that's why it is perhaps more fruitful to read both books in tandem:

"I did think that a war against Saddam represented the better part of wisdom. My reasoning wasn't Nixon's, though. [in reference to a NYT op-ed by Nixon on the eve of the first Iraq war. T.] In my analysis, there were wars and wars. Idealistic wars, and cynical wars. Pragmatic wars, and wars that are hopelessly wrong-headed. And Nixon's war and mine were not the same." (p. 4).

In fact, this ideology is a radical departure from older foreign policy, by claiming that US interests are best served through help in the creation and support of free societies (and thus free markets). This is how Wolfowitz at least sees it: Realism (US interests) and Idealism (ethical foreign policy -- "progressive" and "anti-totalitarian," to use Berman's terms), are inseperable.

Berman makes an insightful analogy between Realism and Marxist materialism:

"In the 'realist' picture of the world, wars break out because some nation's desire for wealth, power, and geography brushes up against some other nation's equally tangible desire for the same. ... That was how Nixon and his school of 'realists' tended to see the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990-91. ... Everyone fell to squabbling over geography. ... Those oil wells are not your oil wells. That was the meaning of the 1991 war, in the 'realist' interpretation." (p. 9).

Echoes of Chomsky's rationale are quite clear in this description of Realism. This indeed has been the funniest thing about this Iraq war, in that it showed how modern-day Leftists are more similar to their arch-nemesis, Nixon, than they ever thought! But also, it showed how deeply materialist the older foreign policy was/is. This is evident in the reactions to the phenomenon of suicide bombers. The immediate reaction was to blame poverty and unemployment. Then came 9/11 and blew that theory to smitherines, as all the perpetrators were from the educated middle class.

Therefore, it is perhaps suitable to label the newer synthetic political program as Weberian (despite the various inadequacies of such a term), in that it breaks away from Marxist materialism and its views on ideology. For a good introduction to these concepts, see Anthony Giddens, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim, and Max Weber (Cambridge, 1996). In that sense, moving beyond the dichotomy of Realism vs. Idealism towards a more complex understanding of their relationship is indeed desirable.