Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 16, 2007

Weekend Reading

In May 1969, the critic Lionel Abel published an essay in COMMENTARY taking forceful issue with a new book, American Power and the New Mandarins, by Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT who was then only beginning to make a name for himself as an influential left-wing scourge of American “imperialism.” The immediate subject of Chomsky’s book was the American intervention in Vietnam, but his intent was to place this conflict within a much broader context—namely, the supposedly uninterrupted history of American malefaction on the world scene. (Chomsky did not spare his own kind, either: he attacked American intellectuals, the “new mandarins” of his title, for what he saw as their shameful, passive complicity in their government’s evil deeds.)

Abel’s essay, entitled “The Position of Noam Chomsky,” focused devastatingly on the chief moral underpinning of Chomsky’s argument: namely, that America’s wanton and self-interested resort to force in foreign lands robbed it of any standing or credibility in the struggle it professed to be waging against Communist totalitarianism. Along the way, Abel also dealt in passing with Chomsky’s distorted version of a speech given by President Harry Truman at Baylor College linking economic freedom with political freedom, a speech interpreted by Chomsky in his book as a thinly veiled justification for the global spread of American-style capitalism by any and all means.

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In May 1969, the critic Lionel Abel published an essay in COMMENTARY taking forceful issue with a new book, American Power and the New Mandarins, by Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT who was then only beginning to make a name for himself as an influential left-wing scourge of American “imperialism.” The immediate subject of Chomsky’s book was the American intervention in Vietnam, but his intent was to place this conflict within a much broader context—namely, the supposedly uninterrupted history of American malefaction on the world scene. (Chomsky did not spare his own kind, either: he attacked American intellectuals, the “new mandarins” of his title, for what he saw as their shameful, passive complicity in their government’s evil deeds.)

Abel’s essay, entitled “The Position of Noam Chomsky,” focused devastatingly on the chief moral underpinning of Chomsky’s argument: namely, that America’s wanton and self-interested resort to force in foreign lands robbed it of any standing or credibility in the struggle it professed to be waging against Communist totalitarianism. Along the way, Abel also dealt in passing with Chomsky’s distorted version of a speech given by President Harry Truman at Baylor College linking economic freedom with political freedom, a speech interpreted by Chomsky in his book as a thinly veiled justification for the global spread of American-style capitalism by any and all means.

Abel’s essay elicited a lengthy response from the aggrieved Chomsky, to which Abel responded vigorously in turn. But this was not the end of the matter. In a subsequent issue of the magazine, the political historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., then an eloquent defender of cold-war anti-Communism, lit into Chomsky’s response, with specific reference to Truman’s disputed speech at Baylor College. Schlesinger’s critique drew forth yet another outpouring from the voluble Chomsky. The series of exchanges and sub-exchanges ended with a final comment by Schlesinger in which the historian curtly dismantled several additional Chomskyan claims. Chomsky has not yet replied.

This riveting intellectual feud took place over 35 years ago. But the central issues debated by Abel, Chomsky, and Schlesinger—in a nutshell, whether American power is a force for good or for ill in the world, and whether the means deployed by America are proportionate to the ends—are still very much alive today as we enter the fourth year of our war in Iraq and as the Chomskyan position still informs the mindset of many educated Americans. As this weekend’s reading, we offer the full text of these remarkable items from our archive.

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Lying Liars and Their Lies

Was Valerie Plame under oath today when she testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and declared that she played no role in sending her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, on a fact-finding trip to Niger? “I did not recommend him. I did not suggest him. There was no nepotism involved. I did not have the authority,” she said.

Does this contradict an exhaustive Senate Intelligence Committee report on pre-war intelligence about Iraq, which looked closely at the genesis of the Wilson visit?

The report, issued in 2004, notes that some officials at the Counterproliferation Division (CPD) of the CIA “could not recall how the office decided to contact the former ambassador [Wilson].” But it states unequivocally that “interviews and documents provided to the committee indicate that his wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip.” In particular, the CPD reports-officer told the Senate committee “that the former ambassador’s wife ‘offered up his name.’”

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Was Valerie Plame under oath today when she testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and declared that she played no role in sending her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, on a fact-finding trip to Niger? “I did not recommend him. I did not suggest him. There was no nepotism involved. I did not have the authority,” she said.

Does this contradict an exhaustive Senate Intelligence Committee report on pre-war intelligence about Iraq, which looked closely at the genesis of the Wilson visit?

The report, issued in 2004, notes that some officials at the Counterproliferation Division (CPD) of the CIA “could not recall how the office decided to contact the former ambassador [Wilson].” But it states unequivocally that “interviews and documents provided to the committee indicate that his wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip.” In particular, the CPD reports-officer told the Senate committee “that the former ambassador’s wife ‘offered up his name.’”

What’s more, the Senate committee obtained a memorandum addressed to the deputy chief of the CPD from Plame herself, in which she wrote: “my husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light” on Iraqi uranium purchases. The Senate report goes on to say that Plame also approached her husband “on behalf of the CIA and told him ‘there’s this crazy report’ on a purported deal for Niger to sell uranium to Iraq.”

An additional sidelight: the Senate committee also notes that Wilson had previously traveled to Niger on a CIA mission in 1999. He had been selected for that trip “after his wife mentioned to her supervisors that her husband was planning a business trip to Niger in the near future.”

Did Plame lie to the House committee today, or does that question hinge on the meaning of the word “recommend,” or the meaning of the word “suggest,” or the meaning of the words “did not”?

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The Unknown Earth

It is hard to put ourselves in the shoes of Europeans who lived in the great age of discovery—when bold explorers set out across the oceans in pursuit of unknown lands, and those fortunate enough to survive brought back word of vast swaths of terra nova. Again and again it turned out that the world was larger, more varied, and more mysterious than anyone imagined. The “new” continents had always been there; they had simply been unknown to the West.

We generally think that this age is over, and that, even if there still is a great deal we don’t understand about how nature works, we at least have a pretty good catalogue of what there is to examine in our world. We tend to assume that any truly new ground to discover will come from humanity’s exploration of space.

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It is hard to put ourselves in the shoes of Europeans who lived in the great age of discovery—when bold explorers set out across the oceans in pursuit of unknown lands, and those fortunate enough to survive brought back word of vast swaths of terra nova. Again and again it turned out that the world was larger, more varied, and more mysterious than anyone imagined. The “new” continents had always been there; they had simply been unknown to the West.

We generally think that this age is over, and that, even if there still is a great deal we don’t understand about how nature works, we at least have a pretty good catalogue of what there is to examine in our world. We tend to assume that any truly new ground to discover will come from humanity’s exploration of space.

But every now and then we are shown the limits of this attitude. Like old European schoolmasters smugly confident in their maps, we overestimate our knowledge and underestimate the earth’s vastness and variety. These days, such lessons in humility are most often delivered by our oceans. The waters that the explorers of the age of discovery saw as standing between them and their terra nova turn out to be filled with previously unimagined secrets, and among them quite a bit we still don’t know about biological life on this planet.

The latest reminder comes the old-fashioned way: from a long and arduous sailing expedition. Craig Venter, best known as a pioneer in the study of the human genome, has led a crew on a 6,000-mile voyage, collecting water samples on the way and studying the microbial life they contain. The first batch of results, published this week, is a treasure trove of discoveries. The team found an astonishing variety of previously unknown proteins and DNA sequences—actually doubling the number of protein sequences known to exist—as well as what appears to be a previously unknown means of generating energy from light, different from the photosynthesis of green plants. If this first publication is any sign, the results of the voyage will add enormously to our catalog of mysteries about the earth.

In time, researchers will try to find ways to put the new discoveries to use, pursuing medical applications or trying to figure out how bacteria might be used as fuels. For the moment, though, the study gives us a reason to pause and appreciate how little we really know about our world.

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One War

Time and again, the Bush administration has tried to hammer home the message: Iraq is not a sideshow but a central front in the jihad being waged against the West. This message, however, does not resonate. Iraq still seems to many Americans to be a pointless detour.

Since Bush and Cheney are so unconvincing on this score, perhaps someone will listen to Hizballah, which openly argues that defeating America in Iraq is the key to Israel’s destruction. This clip, translated by the indispensable MEMRI-TV, is a must-watch.

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Time and again, the Bush administration has tried to hammer home the message: Iraq is not a sideshow but a central front in the jihad being waged against the West. This message, however, does not resonate. Iraq still seems to many Americans to be a pointless detour.

Since Bush and Cheney are so unconvincing on this score, perhaps someone will listen to Hizballah, which openly argues that defeating America in Iraq is the key to Israel’s destruction. This clip, translated by the indispensable MEMRI-TV, is a must-watch.

Here’s what Abdallah Safialdeen, Hizballah’s representative in Iran, said on Iranian Channel 4 on March 4:

The day that Hizballah won the war shaped the future of the region. It led to what we are witnessing today: America’s actions, the domestic problems of the Zionist regime, the confusion of Europe. . . .

The Europeans are very confused now, and don’t know what to do. The horse that they put their money on—Israel—can no longer fulfill the role it played in the past. America has not had any success anywhere in the region. In our opinion, the harbinger of this lack of success was the victory of Hizballah, the bitter defeat of the Zionist regime, and its incompetence in the region. . . .

Do you know what an American withdrawal from Iraq will mean? It will mean that Israel will lose its support. It will mean that the Lebanese Hizballah will not need a large-scale war in order to enter Palestine. Hizballah will be able to simply walk into Palestine.

Rest assured that the day the American forces leave Iraq, the Israelis will leave the region along with them.

What was one of the reasons for Olmert’s recent visit to America? He went there in order to say to the Democrats: “Don’t say that the American army will leave Iraq, because this would mean the annihilation of the Zionist regime.” This is because the annihilation of the Zionist regime has begun.

Like some of our friends say, Palestine is no longer a problem for us, because the Americans will be forced to leave Iraq. With or without a war against Iran, they will be forced to do so. The moment they leave Iraq, you, the Muslims of the world, can walk into Palestine, because Israel will no longer exist. It will be over and done with. Even with America’s [help], Israel could not do a thing.

The Americans will be kicked out of the region, without accomplishing anything. The American forces will be kicked out of the region, in disgrace, humiliation, and defeat. Therefore, this victory was very important. It was a landmark in the history of the Islamic world and the entire region.

It matters little that much of this is fantasy. What is not fantasy is the fundamental point: there is just one war, and neither side can ignore victory or defeat in a particular theater. A loss in Iraq is a loss for America is a loss for Israel. By the same token, the defeat of any of the jihadis, whether in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, or Iran, affects all of them.

Our enemy knows who they are and whom they are fighting. Is it too much to ask that we get straight who is on our side, who is against us, and the fact that we—and they—rise and fall as a team?

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