This article was originally published in Twin Cities DSA’s blog under the title “Reading an Old Anti-War Book for Our New Anti-War Moment.” The article has been republished here, with consent from the author, with light syntax changes.
MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of how our current political moment feels like the Iraq War era. When leftists mention this, they usually are referring to the vibe of centrist and neoliberal media discourse, which since October 2023 has veered sharply between an apoplectic war-mongering “anti-terrorism” tone when reporting Hamas’s offenses and a confused, still-looking-into-the-reports tone when reporting Israel’s. But another familiar echo from the Iraq War era is in the eruption of mass protests around the world in opposition to acts of imperial aggression. I think it is important for socialists to recognize that in addition to the specificity of Palestine as a political nexus of colonialism and apartheid, a space that exposes the illiberal endgame of neoliberal politics, this moment is also being processed in a more general sense as a time for anti-war political organizing.
Recognizing the anti-war-ness of our current moment is crucial to the left for two reasons:
In other words, anti-war moments are rife with opportunity for the organized left.
This was what was on my mind when reading Hegemony or Survival, the Iraq War-era book from acclaimed foreign policy critic, renowned linguist, and unfortunate Epstein acquaintance Noam Chomsky. I hoped that this book would give context to the popular features of anti-war rhetoric from one of its most celebrated practitioners, while also providing a sense of historicity to the George W. Bush era feeling that many on the left have had in the past few months.
The book was a perfect artifact of the asymmetry of Bush era politics – a remnant of 1960s academic leftism standing athwart a torrent of mainstream media fear-mongering and yelling “Stop!” It also valuably demonstrates three sorts of contributions that can aid us in our present moment:
The most immediately apparent change between 2003 and now is in the United States’ global position relative to the rest of the world. Chomsky makes it clear in both the text and the title that the actions of the United States are still the determining factor in how events unfold across the world stage. He cites the Kissinger model where the US pursues “global” interests and every other actor is limited to “regional” ones (148), and in several places mentions that in the new world order the only “second superpower” might be “world public opinion” (4, 22). Chomsky has an eye on Asia, but only as a continent which might begin to amass a bit of power and autonomy that could complicate US hegemony (155). In 2023, China has firmly established itself as our second world-scale superpower.
To Chomsky’s credit, he does correctly identify one threat to the hegemony of the United States: he notes that a major side effect of 9/11 is the realization that rich nations no longer possess a “monopoly on violence” (208). He also cites modern military technology as contributing to this destabilization, an observation which seems even more prescient in the era of drone warfare. But richer nations, as Israel has horribly demonstrated, still monopolize certain scales of violence. The ability to truly level “enemy” urban areas, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, are still mostly the terrain of the wealthy few.
In discursive terms, the obvious shift between then and now is the disappearing concerns around the “legitimate” appearance of various imperial actors. In 2003, the pro-war media still had a project of justifying US actions in terms of their necessity (by demonstrating the threat of terrorism/Saddam/etc.) and in terms of the nobility of US aims (by showing that the war was really about restoring democracy or women’s rights). Meanwhile, the goal of leftists like Chomsky was traditionally to prove that US actions were unnecessary and that our aims were centered on our drive to accumulate and maintain global power. This led to one of the most distinctive features of Iraq War media discourse that has not reappeared as prominently in 2023: the accusations that the Bush administration and their media mouthpieces “lied” in order to bring our country into the war (18). Such accusations are aptly proven in Hegemony or Survival, but reading the book in light of the situation in Palestine now (and the many lies told by Israeli and US leaders) raises the question: why isn’t anyone concerned with honesty anymore?
I think the paradoxical answer here is that our public discourse has generally accepted the premise of earlier anti-war activists: that the United States and our allies routinely lie to sell wars. While accepting this premise, most media outlets do not accept the conclusion that any dishonestly mongered war effort should be rejected out of hand. They rather seem to conclude that this sort of truth-fudging is part of the job for government officials, and any errant claims about seeing photos of beheaded children, bizarre videos of science fictionish sub-hospital command centers, or dubious assertions about Israel’s “intent” to minimize civilian losses can really only be reported out once, and not woven into an overarching narrative regarding the general dishonesty of the governments involved. The result of this capitulation combined with the fact that the IDF tends to tweet out propaganda is a merged traditional and social media terrain that is flooded with dishonesty, with logically conflicting unproven narratives issued to see which one sticks, and indecipherable ecstatic-truthy declarations like “Hamas is ISIS” propagated far and wide.
As it becomes less interested in the question of honesty, our foreign policy discourse has also become a degree more brutal. While the Iraq War was sold as a matter of national security, it was understood even by its proponents to be a matter of revenge: “America needed to hit someone.” The recent actions of Israel, however, are outright sold as “vengeance.” This appears like a more honest discourse, but I am not sure it is – I worry that where the Bush era saw “security” rhetoric used as a cover for a murderous act of revenge, this new era is seeing “revenge” rhetoric used as a cover for genocidal intentions.
The book also includes a section outlining the history of the creation of Israel (likely condensed from Chomsky’s 1983 The Fateful Triangle, which I have not read), followed by a quick analysis of the situation as it stood in 2003. He traces this in a very Manufacturing Consent sort of way, using the US vs “client state” framing as a window into the occupation. In Chomsky’s accounting, the US material support for Israel indicates that Israel’s interests could generally be seen as an extension of American interests – in other words, they operate like a “US base in the region” (165).
For the most part, this shoe fits quite well. Chomsky mentions that Nixon’s administration saw Israel as a “local cop on the beat” preventing the region from enacting Egyptian President Nasser’s pan-Arab vision (163). But the client state framing isn’t entirely convincing – it’s uncommon for other client states to have such aggressive political or lobbying support. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, an anti-Saudi politician subjected to the circus of endless censure and primary challenges that greet Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib. Israel seems to be pursuing its own interests even in certain cases where they conflict with American ones – Chomsky himself has said as much in a recent interview.
Despite the slightly misfit “client state” framing, this is a broadly strong analysis. Chomsky is rightly skeptical of the Bush era two-state “road map,” especially concerning its intent to punish Palestinians for straying off-map but not Israelis – “no reason to expect any significant change” (183). He also warns that Israel is developing a heavily militarized culture, which contains within it a risk of becoming fascist (180-181). Finally, in comparing the occupation to Britain’s actions in India and Kenya, Chomsky seems to hit the nail on the head: “[h]istory is replete with precedents for what we see before our eyes, day after day, though the stakes grow more awesome along with the means of destruction available” (183).
Even though the previous two months have felt to many on the left like a rerun from an awful TV show, critical shifts have taken place in both world politics and foreign policy discourse in recent decades. While these changes are not inherently positive, they appear to be driven by the erosion of US geopolitical hegemony in the years since 2003. With a sharp look at our historical context, what first looked simply like a horrific recurrence of imperial cruelty now appears to be a moment of speculative possibility for those of us organizing towards a kinder and more equitable world.
CHOMSKY, N. (2024). Hegemony or survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. HAYMARKET BOOKS.