I have come across two fine books that are essential reading for our fraught times, especially given the amount of misinformation, propaganda and “infowars” in the media.
In their book War in Ukraine, Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies align all the pertinent facts a reader needs to know about the origins of a brutal but avoidable conflict and the political events that have accompanied its unfolding. They define the geopolitical issues, put them in perspective and analyze the risks and much of the damage done to our civilization by a war that reflects a confused political logic on all sides. Their book tracks the decisions and interpretations that have populated the headlines in the media and takes that same media to task for both neglecting history and inventing narratives intended to bury the facts and hide the perception of their deeper meaning.
In short, War in Ukraine provides a compendious antidote to the plethora of distortions presented by what it would be more accurate to call the news entertainment media. The history that brought us to where we are today now confuses us about where we are likely to be tomorrow. Our leaders and our media prefer that we remain blissfully unaware. Complexity and political entertainment are incompatible. Is that what explains why history and the lessons we can learn from it have largely been banned from the popular media?
Benjamin and Davies take on the complexity, breaking it down into digestible bits. They consistently avoid polemic and stick to the facts. Some of the facts have been and will be directly denied or simply conveniently forgotten, such as Victoria Nuland’s extremely active role in the Maidan uprising back in 2014, an episode the authors recount in detail. Nuland has long been the US State Department’s most prominent and impenitent neoconservative (neocon). That explains why the authors ask at one point, “Why would Biden bring Nuland back and give her even greater responsibility after what happened on her watch in Ukraine in 2014?” They don’t provide an answer. Only Biden himself could supply one. But the question itself highlights the complexity of this sequence of historical events. It is a question every reader should think about.
Since this is all about Ukraine, the authors could have mentioned another unelucidated mystery: the role of Joe Biden’s son Hunter in Ukrainian affairs. That is precisely the kind of story that appeals to polemicists. It too raises some real questions. But the authors have chosen only to focus on verifiable facts and visible connections. They may be accused of not hewing to the White House’s narrative, but in the land of the First Amendment that is presumably a legitimate deviation. If there is any sense that they are rooting for one side or another, it is clearly for the side of peace and sanity. The fact that so many politicians and media figures are making such an effort to get the American public to root rather than think and reflect is one of the most troubling phenomena that emerges from their account of the war in Ukraine.
Benjamin’s and Davies’s command of the facts and their patient recounting of Ukraine’s recent history represent an impressive achievement. Even those like myself who have tried to follow events dating back decades will find plenty of new things to think about and piece together while reading these pages. The points they make are clearly meant to inform rather than persuade. Their point of view nevertheless remains crystal clear. In John Lennon’s words, “give peace a chance.” On their own, the task they see lying ahead of us is to commit to a strategy bent on resolving tensions while respecting the different parties’ legitimate interests, even when those interests conflict. Above all, it is to pull us back from the brink of nuclear war.
American addiction to hegemony
Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad’s Withdrawal accomplishes something similar in its handling of history. It sets up a very similar debate based on both authors’ wide-ranging knowledge of contemporary history and geopolitics. They place their analysis in a much broader historical context, with a focus on the evolution of US foreign policy starting with the Vietnam war.
Chomsky has, after all, been playing this game for far longer than most everyone covering international relations. He has done so with a seriousness and independence that none of the public pundits whose writings appear regularly in prestigious newspapers and journals can claim to rival. Does that mean he perfectly understands everything? Certainly not. I would personally take issue with specific points, such as his assigning India’s Narendra Modi to a “reactionary alliance” that links him with Hungary’s Victor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He reduces Modi’s politics to one based on “destroying secular democracy” in the interest of “creating a Hindu ethnocracy” and “crushing Kashmir.” Chomsky may, in this case, be more influenced by random articles he’s read in The New York Times than a direct experience of contemporary India. Modi’s politics and India’s history of ethnic and religious relations are much more complex than Chomsky’s assertion.
In the book’s Afterword, Prashad explains that his relationship with Chomsky began in the early 1990s. As their friendship developed, the two thinkers and prolific commentators on geopolitics hailing from two distant parts of the world merge in this book as a united couple acutely aware of the state and the position of the US on the world stage. They describe what may appear as an increasingly desperate and literally dislocated defense of a declining US empire and the dangers it presents for the rest of the world.
The pretext for the book, reflected in its title, was the Biden administration’s surprising and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 after a 20-year stint of attempting to manage everyone’s affairs in the Middle East. Most people perceived it as an admission of failure. Some thought it might even qualify as an act of humility. The events of 2022 show that the trend towards humility was, if it existed, short-lived.
Is the US Seeking to Undermine Globalization?
Reviewing US foreign policy over many decades since World War II, Chomsky and Prashad point out that despite surprises such as the retreat from Vietnam in 1975 and the withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, the US has seen its role evolve in what they see as a worrying direction. During the Cold War it appeared that the US was hubristically assuming the role of the world’s policeman. It set about enforcing the laws of the rules-based order it had succeeded in establishing thanks to its financial and industrial clout that remained intact and unscathed after a catastrophic world war. Ever since the fall of the USSR, when the US became the world’s unique superpower, the authors see it as having moved into a slightly different role: that of the global Godfather, mafia style.
Chomsky and Prashad direct their analysis less on the question of who may have been right and who was wrong in the conduct of any particular event than on exposing the structural principles that informed the decision-making behind the Godfather’s foreign policy. Those who have studied the Mafia know that the families have always been more focused in their daily routines on serious business and the profitability of their commerce than on the spectacular machine gun massacres that feature in the reporting of the media and Hollywood movies. It is no different with US foreign policy, despite the US government’s proclivity for prosecuting wars of their own making or participating in proxy wars, as has happened in Yemen and Ukraine. In the chapter of the book dedicated to 9/11 and Afghanistan, Chomsky offers this pertinent analysis of the well documented American industrial policy that justified President Eisenhower’s warning targeting the military-industrial complex.
“The Pentagon system… imposes on the public a large burden of the costs (research and development, R&D° and provides a guaranteed market for excess production, a useful cushion for management decisions. Furthermore, this form of industrial policy does not have the undesirable side effects of social spending directed to human needs. Apart from unwelcome redistributive effects, the latter policies tend to interfere with managerial prerogatives; useful production may undercut private gain, while state-subsidized waste production (arms, man-on-the-moon extravaganzas, etc.) is a gift to the owner and manager, who will, furthermore, be granted control of any marketable spin-offs.”
The thought, in just a few sentences, is both complex and complete. Eisenhower warned the nation of the danger but never tried to explain the logic of the process. In a few sentences Chomsky makes it clear. This kind of industrial organization dares to violate the principles of the liberal capitalist system it is designed to defend militarily. In a world supposedly regulated by the invisible hand of free competition, the Pentagon’s system, overseen by Congress, props up state-subsidized private monopolies. It even prolongs the process into consumer space, where theoretically pure market forces should always be at work. Such a system repeats the chestnut about “building a better mousetrap” but adds another proviso: make sure it’s the taxpayers, not the capitalists, who fund it and then spend the money you saved on lawyers specialized in IP who will protect your invention from imitators, which guarantees future margins. Taxpayers thus pay for these monopolistic practices twice. At least they are assured of having the most competitive armed forces in the world.
Military withdrawal but clandestine engagement
Withdrawal ranges across a series of wars and military operations that have defined the consistent drift of US foreign policy for at least the past 50 years. The withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan in 2021 led some commentators to assume that this marked a turning point in US policy. The nation was finally moving away from the temptation to systematically intervene in other nations’ affairs. One could even imagine that the US was preparing to accept a multipolar world in which problems would be addressed and solved through deliberation and collaboration rather than confrontation and conflict. The media even came up with a name for it: “the peace dividend.” Many Americans saw it as an opportunity for the new Biden administration to focus on its commitment to renewing infrastructure and “building back better” to improve the lives of Americans at home.
Such a belief quickly turned out to belong to the same penchant for naivety that had led some political figures and commentators three decades ago to suppose that once the Soviet Union had dissolved and the Warsaw pact was disbanded, there would be no further need for NATO. Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin were at various times convinced that the opportunity existed to imagine and put in place a specifically European or even Eurasian security framework that would encourage the existing trend towards fluidifying a globalized economy.
They too turned out to be naïve. They failed to understand that the real purpose of NATO, from the American point of view, was to hold Europe securely under US military and economic control. NATO especially served to prevent the eventual emergence of a more powerful economic zone capable of marginalizing the US economy and supplanting its historical supremacy. China is a threat because you can’t give it orders. Europe would be an even bigger threat if it stopped taking orders.
The dollar as the unique universally recognized reserve currency and some 800 military bases spread across the surface of the globe have stood for decades as the guarantors of US hegemony. Anything that might rise in autonomy to threaten, challenge or weaken that carefully constructed system — often referred to as a “rules-based order” — must be prevented from taking shape.
In their introduction, Chomsky and Prashad explain their comparison of US foreign policy with the behavior of a mafia Godfather. “There is a mafia quality to the way the United States has exercised its power.” It isn’t a modern phenomenon. They detect its roots in the genocide of native populations in North America, a campaign historically romanticized and even theologized as “manifest destiny.” They then make this specific claim: “The Godfather attitude expanded geometrically after the collapse of the USSR.” It is the opposite of democratic reasoning. They note that George W Bush’s wars in the Middle East “came with little consideration for world opinion, even less for the possibility of preventing war through negotiation.”
Chorus for Peace in Ukraine Sings Louder
The refusal to negotiate is one of the major points that Benjamin and Davies note in their account of the history of the ongoing Ukraine war. At the end of 2021, after amassing an impressive number of troops on the Ukrainian border. Russia used the demonstration to propose that a conflict could be avoided if the parties accepted to hammer out an understanding. It’s a classic ploy. Demonstrate the worst of your intentions and use the demonstration to reach a compromise At the time, Western media neglected even to report on that proposal.
In the past few days the question of negotiations to end the conflict has come to the fore once again, with a growing sense of urgency as winter approaches. The same media who paid no attention to it last December have continued to voluntarily ignore that such a proposal was ever made. Again history disappears out of sheer neglect. This is unfortunate because any peace deal likely to be achieved will almost certainly contain many of the provisions of the Russian proposal of last year.
Benjamin and Davies make no judgment about what would de fair or desirable. They offer the simple facts describing this episode. “In December 2021, Russia took the initiative of proposing two draft mutual security treaties, one between Russia and the United States and one between Russia and NATO. These were not ‘take it or leave it’ demands or ultimata, but drafts for negotiation. So any specific language that the United States or NATO disagreed with was on the table for negotiation.” The problem of negotiating to end a war that has already begun is that after the loss of life, the destruction of property and the occupation of territory, both sides consider it a capitulation and a loss of face to agree to the other side’s terms, even when they constitute a feasible and acceptable solution.
Let’s not do a deal!
In other words, the allergy to negotiations Chomsky and Prashad saw as already a characteristic of the Republican Bush administration’s remains intact under Biden’s Democratic White House. Benjamin and Davies describe in detail how the negotiations engaged in the first weeks after the Russian invasion were discouraged, if not sabotaged by voices in the West who saw the conflict as an opportunity to weaken and humiliate Russia, even at the cost of Ukrainian suffering.
Godfathers only make a show of negotiating when they know they unambiguously have the upper hand. An honest observer would be justified in posing the question Western media still refuses to ask with regard to the events of 2021: Does the cost in blood and treasure of a war some predict to last for years not call into question the wisdom of refusing to sit down and talk with the Russian last December? Benjamin and Davies offer their version of the question. “Was the U.S. strategic ‘great game’ against Russia such an overriding priority to Biden and U.S. leaders that they saw years of war and bloodshed in Ukraine as an acceptable price for trying to ‘weaken ’Russia, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin later described the U.S. goal?”
The implications of the choice the Biden administration made of offering the Ukrainians an endless supply of arms and funding in the hope of prolonging the war are chilling. They cannot be chalked up to US intelligence misreading of the stakes or the government’s failure to anticipate the consequences. “The Godfather attitude is not irrational,” Chomsky and Prashad tell us. It is designed not to solve problems or avert catastrophe but “to protect the property, privileges, and power of the ruling elite in the United States and their closest allies in Europe, Japan, and a few other countries.” All of this means that its principal goal is to prevent other interests from having a say in world affairs. The US applies a simple logical principle: once you have defined your rules-based order, there is nothing to negotiate. Follow the rules and the Godfather will be there to reward you for your obedience.
Chomsky and Prashad cover a lot of historical ground and use the examples they cite to describe what appears as predictable patterns of behavior. Acceptance of all the explicit and tacit laws of the rule-based order remains fundamental. “The United States cannot tolerate defiance,” Chomsky concludes, “particularly successful defiance.” To illustrate the principle he recounts the behavior of both the Carter and Reagan administrations with regard to the tiny island of Grenada, ultimately the object of an American military invasion for the crime of disobedience.
Chomsky: Washington’s Dilemma on a “Lost” Planet
In contrast, Benjamin and Davies, seeking to inform about the facts, draw few general conclusions. The diligently and dutifully recount the events that have in the past and present defined the stakes of the Ukraine war. But those facts and the description of those events chime with the same points Chomsky and Prashad make throughout their book..
Nevertheless, Benjamin and Davies are careful not to impose one point of view but to acknowledge alternative interpretations of the same set of facts. In their concluding chapter they dramatically ask two probing questions aimed at confronting the actors in the conflict with their responsibilities. “Could Putin really believe that Russia’s very existence was under such immediate threat that invasion was the only answer? Could Western leaders really believe that Ukraine’s right to join NATO and to reimpose its sovereignty over Donbass and Crimea were causes worthy of jeopardizing millions of lives or risking nuclear war?” It’s a sad fact that the most brutal wars are carried out and endure on the basis of what each party “believes.”
Is history too complex for the media’s taste?
These two books have one thing in common: they demonstrate how complex history can be and how dangerous denying its complexity may be. In their modest way, while denouncing what they characterize as political errors and even crimes by those who make policy, the authors remind us that our culture’s cultivated indifference to history compounds the problem. It blinds the populations of our democracies, preventing them from exercising a corrective role. It does so by conditioning them to accept a truncated version of historical truth.
Making Sense of Vladimir Putin’s Long Game
Benjamin and Davies dedicate a chapter to the role of propaganda that now, perhaps more than ever before, permeates our media, executing the essential task of reducing the appreciation of historical truth to the unconditional support supplied by fans for their team in a competitive sport. The authors begin the chapter “Information warfare” with a quote from former US Ambassador Chas Freeman: ““This war in Ukraine is the most intense information war humanity has ever seen. There are so many lies flying about that it’s totally impossible to perceive the truth.”
Discovering and isolating the “truth” of historical processes is no easy task. Often the closer we are to a story unfolding before our eyes, the harder it is to perceive its factual substance and especially its deeper meaning. But denying or simply failing to be attentive to the history that precedes what we believe we see clearly today is quite simply irresponsible. The cost of acquiescing to such an irresponsible attitude has never been more evident. Chomsky reminds us that the “U.S. military is driving us toward destruction through nuclear war and the climate catastrophe.” Benjamin and Davies bring the same point in their chapter with the title: “Flirting with nuclear war.”
Just this week the report of a “Russian missile” that detonated in Poland killing two people demonstrated how close the flirtation might already be. Depending on how such nations and institutions like NATO read such events – as acts of war or false flag operations – the result may look like a less entertaining version of Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy, Dr Strangelove. Whereas Joe Biden immediately discounted the idea that it may be a Russian aggression, the New York Times reports that “Volodymyr Zelensky, seized on the possibility of Russian involvement and called it evidence of ‘a very significant escalation.’” Given the propension of a wide range of people – and not only Sean Penn – to believe anything Zelenskyy says, after such incidents a direct war between two nuclear powers (actually more than two) may be only days or even hours away.
That is why it would be both salutary and urgent for anyone who cares about their own survival, let alone that of the human race, to read these books by two different sets of authors. They should do so before drawing hasty conclusions on the basis of the latest news story about who is right and who is wrong or who deserves a comeuppance.
What the world needs today is a little bit of sanity and a large dose of critical thinking based on discernible facts and a sensitivity to the trends of history. War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless War provides the former in abundance. The facts they present should convince any honest reader that there’s more to the story than even the most respectable media will present on any given day. In contrast, Chomsky and Prashad’s Withdrawal reads like a dialogue between two people who have spent recent decades, individually and collaboratively, refining their critical thinking and applying it to the contemporary dramas of the world. Our advice to the reader; it’s probably best to start with War in Ukraine, just to restore one’s sanity in the face of the daily onslaught of what Chas Freeman has called an “information war.” Chomsky and Prashad’s more reflective and conversational contribution will provide a broader context and open up other avenues of research. In some sense, we can never have enough history. In a similar sense we can easily have too much propaganda.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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