The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Towards a New Cold War

I'm in the midst of reading Noam Chomsky's Towards a New Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy from Vietnam to Reagan (it was on discount at Powell's). It was originally published in 1982, so as a collection of current events essays, I can see why its not a big seller today. Still, with the advent of the Iraq War, it was republished in 2003, because Chomsky makes some very striking comments and predictions about the possibility of a United States war in the Persian Gulf. I'll point out a few passages which are apropos of today's situation.

First Chomsky deals extensively with Vietnam and its legacy. In the midst of discussing how politicians jumped on the anti-war bandwagon, he writes the following:

. . . consider the [December 10, 1977] issue of the New Republic . . . The lead editorial, entitled "The McCarthy Decade," is an ode to Eugene McCarthy, who "changed the landscape of American politics" when he challenged Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 presidential campaign. . . . McCarthy, [the New Republiceditors] argue, "has ensured that no President ever will feel again that he can carry on a war unaffected by the moral judgment of the people." [0]

My initial reaction to this was that it hasn't held up: Bush and Obama have both carried on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in spite of an outpouring of moral condemnation from the American people. But the more I think about that, the more I wonder how much outrage there really is. Yes, Obama ran on ending the Iraq war, but neither the Iraq nor Afghanistan conflicts have elicited nearly as much outrage from the American public as did Vietnam. So perhaps the President would feel constrained to end a war which was condemned by the public's moral judgment. Still, I am skeptical that this was a fundamental shift in American politics. It probably had to do more with the high degree of protest and civil unrest in the Vietnam era than it did with public moral judgment in and of itself.

Now regarding energy resources in the Persian Gulf, Chomsky writes,

With the doctrine that we are entitled to use of force to control the Gulf against an indigenous threat or to overcome a "prospective" imbalance of military power [with the Soviet Union] - in effect, a preemptive strike - . . . we reach the outer limits of great-power cynicism. [1]

The term "preemptive strike" of course became infamous in the context of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which I believe would qualify as "an indigenous threat" in this context. Shortly afterwards, Chomsky notes that potential drawbacks of operating in the Muslim world were known:

In the New Republic, J.B. Kelly writes that ". . . the Western nations have left themselves no alternative but to project their military power into the Gulf region." This may lead to "an upsurge of Moslem fanaticism against the West," Kelly observes, but "whether it will amount to more than a ritual outpouring of scurrility and the customary carnival of ruffianism is hard to say." [2]

Unfortunately we know how this is turning out. American military presence in the Persian Gulf region (including Saudi Arabia) since the Gulf War has been one of the top reasons cited by terrorists for their crimes.

I've enjoyed reading Towards a New Cold War so far. It offers a lot of insight into theĀ geopoliticsĀ of the 70s and 80s which just does not come through in history books. For instance, it seems clear to me after reading this that U.S. intervention in the Gulf region (especially the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars) was not merely the reaction of the nation to world events, but was the explicitly stated desire of some foreign policy wonks. I probably should not be surprised by that.

[0] Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War. The New Press, 2003. pp. 83-84.

[1] Ibid., p. 235.

[2] Ibid., p. 241.