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Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the…

Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (original 2006; edition 2007)

by Noam Chomsky

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Title:Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy
Authors:Noam Chomsky
Info:Holt Paperbacks (2007), Paperback, 311 pages
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Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy by Noam Chomsky (2006)



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I studied Mass Communications in my undergrad, and I remember having to read a bit of Chomsky. I didn't like him. I had no idea what he was talking about. Only much later, when I rediscovered Chomsky, did it occur to me - I had only ever been exposed to Chomsky the linguist and never[1] Chomsky the media theorist or Chomsky the political junkie.

There's a number of his books on our bookshelves, and I am looking forward to eventually making my way through them. Chomsky is just too right too much of the time. This was a very good read.

In Failed States, Chomsky traces how the United States is increasingly fitting the profile of what are generally considered to be 'failed states'. Some salient points that stuck with me:[2]

* US military expenditures approximate those of the rest of the world combined, and the alleged fears over other countries strengthening militarily are likely less of a threat than the fact that the US already controls so much (shipping, etc.);

* the derision and outright aggression directed toward those intelligence experts who have exercised caution or tried to understand the roots of terrorism (i.e., anything beyond an 'us versus them' mentality);

* Washington's long-standing habit of exempting itself from international law when appropriate;[3]

* negotiations surrounding the Non-Proliferation Treaties of the late '90s and early '00s;[4]

* the credibility of intelligence in various international conflicts;

* the promotion of democracy and institutionalization of state-corporate control;

* the incredible lack of health care;[5] and,

* the intricacies of country-to-country relations (e.g., NAFTA, Cuba-Venezuela, etc.).

I'm a left-leaning small-l liberal who believes that corporate interests have taken over way more of our daily life than is healthy. So needless to say, I agree with Chomsky a lot. But even for those who might not agree so readily, he's pretty hard to argue against. His information is all painstakingly footnoted and documented. While no doubt there is a certain level of spin applied to what he is saying, you can't dismiss him as a crank. He is obviously knowledgeable and clearly interested in the future of the US. He also writes clearly (unlike his linguistics work which, having recently returned to one text out of simple curiosity, I still can't make heads or tails out of) and compellingly. Even for those who may not be hugely political persons, this book will surely interest and captivate.

[1] Or, to be fair to my program, never as far as I can remember, some 15 years later.

[2] Somewhat unfortunately, I am writing this book review almost two years after reading the book. I don't remember many details. However, somewhat fortunately, I did make liberal use of sticky tabs whilst reading this book.

[3] The particular passage that I marked had a mention of Michael Ignatieff, now the leader of the Liberal Party, and his apparent support of some of the violations of the Geneva Convention (see p. 54). I really must learn more about this.

[4] Including a quote from the recriminations from the head of Canada's delegations, Paul Martin (see p. 77). Yay for Canada references!

[5] Keeping in mind I read this book two years ago, that was waaaay before Obama's health care reform was even a twinkle in the electorate's eye. And it was hugely overdue (and one of the better signs of real common sense that I've seen coming out of the US in a really long time).
  pixxiefish | Apr 26, 2010 |
Currently reading this - so far so good. Our governments definitely need tighter regulation, as do our banks, churches and politicians! ( )
  nlavery | Jun 16, 2009 |
This is a great digestion of the frightening state of human rights in the world, from one of the great anarchist (or anti-authoritarian if you prefer) thinkers of our time.

If you are familiar with the political work of Noam Chomsky, you are going to find the recycling of some historical examples from some of his other works. As we should expect from someone building their arguments on the shoulders of modern history.

What is new is the continued deteriorating state of world affairs. ( )
  kiacyclic | May 3, 2008 |
Noam Chomsky polarizes which unfortunately prevents many of his opponents from considering his books on their own merit. His work is backed up by a huge amount of research and documentation. His flaw, if it is one, is to hold the United States of America to an incredibly high moral standard. A standard most humans and active governments are unable to meet. Thus, he sees US failure all around, failures most of his opponents either ignore or dismiss ("stuff happens"). But costly failures they are (especially for the recipients of US support). The Iraqi occupation adds another poster case to Chomsky's (familiar, but nonetheless true) collection of botched US foreign policy (Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, Iran, Nicaragua, ...). The contrast of lofty rhetorics and failed execution is cruel, maddening and disheartening.

What I find disconcerting about Chomsky is that he usually does not account for US successes and does not dwell on the negative aspects of US opponents (Most often, he points out their evilness in just a single line.) which in his presentation results in a lopsided balance unfair to overall US global influence (although positive US initiatives lately have become fewer and fewer). I think Chomsky could make his message much more palatable in acknowledging successes.

The book is divided into six chapters, five dealing with foreign policy, one with the US itself (unfortunately, the weakest chapter of the book featuring Chomsky's usual lament about corporations). The first chapter deals with the disconnect of proclaimed and actual goals. US representatives idealistic claims result in naked power and control politics - not exactly a new message, but one which undermines US credibility. The second chapter adds the US unwillingness to comply with global treaties and exempt itself from banal to crucial commitments. Some are obviously more equal. The US government positions itself alongside Russia, China and other non-complying states instead of the group of democracies. The practice further erodes US credibility. The third chapter destroys (if it ever needed destroying) the respectability of the notion of preemptive war. The value of this book lies in the discussion of the "illegal but legitimate" bombing of Serbia where Chomsky can convincingly (but thanks to hindsight) show that last-minute diplomacy could have achieved most of the good elements of the intervention without the (Serbian) human rights abuses which followed US intervention. Overall, "illegal but legitimate" actions have a bad track record and should only be undertaken with extreme caution. The fourth chapter shows that much what US governments call democracy promotion ends up supporting the opposite (creating nasty side effects, such as the Iranian Revolution). The fifth chapter is a valuable case-study in the well-intentioned but contra-productive support for Israel which discourages a reasonable conflict resolution. The sixth chapter deals with the US itself and lacks analytical sharpness. It is Chomsky's familiar lamentation about the corporate control and skewed playing field of US politics which while certainly accurate does not offer any solutions or improvements. Tacked on as an afterword is a list of (sensible) good global citizen measures the US should adopt.

Chomsky meticulously documents the transgressions the Americans overtly and covertly made in South America, Asia and the Middle East usually supporting the wrong guy for the wrong reasons. Sometimes, this results in Orwellian flip-flops ("Eurasia has always been at war with Oceania.") when formerly allied thugs (Saddam, Noriega, ...) become public enemies which have to be evicted by force. Chomsky is at his best in exposing the rhetoric contortions and inconsistencies of US government positions. The main problem is that the US allies itself to the local (undemocratic) rulers and supports them against their own people. Preaching democracy and supporting oligarchy (if not worse) is a double game the rest of the world less and less tolerates. Within the land of the free and home of the brave, the broken media environment does not prick the bubble. I learned from the book that the New York Times already in the Eighties had a tendency for selective reporting, so Judith Miller is a continuation not an aberration. The problems of US democracy become more and more apparent. Analysis is certainly not lacking. Unfortunately, realistic solutions remain elusive. Chomsky's book adds anger and frustration but does little to mend the broken government. ( )
  jcbrunner | Sep 6, 2007 |
Forget Iraq and Sudan--America is the foremost failed state, argues the latest polemic from America's most controversial Left intellectual. Chomsky (Imperial Ambitions) contends the U.S. government wallows in lawless military aggression (the Iraq war is merely the latest example); ignores public opinion on everything from global warming to social spending and foreign policy; and jeopardizes domestic security by under-funding homeland defense in favor of tax cuts for the rich and by provoking hatred and instability abroad that may lead to terrorist blowback or nuclear conflict. Ranging haphazardly from the Seminole War forward, Chomsky's jeremiad views American interventionism as a pageant of imperialist power-plays motivated by crass business interests. Disdaining euphemisms, he denounces American "terror" and "war crimes," castigates the public-bamboozling "government-media propaganda campaign" and floats comparisons to Mongols and Nazis. Chomsky's fans will love it, but even mainstream critics are catching up to the substance of his take on Bush Administration policies; meanwhile his uncompromising moral sensibility, icy logic and withering sarcasm remain in a class by themselves. Required reading for every thoughtful citizen. ( )
  addict | Dec 9, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805082840, Paperback)

"It's hard to imagine any American reading this book and not seeing his country in a new, and deeply troubling, light."--The New York Times Book Review

The United States has repeatedly asserted its right to intervene militarily against "failed states" around the globe. In this much-anticipated follow-up to his international bestseller Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky turns the tables, showing how the United States itself shares features with other failed states--suffering from a severe "democratic deficit," eschewing domestic and international law, and adopting policies that increasingly endanger its own citizens and the world. Exploring the latest developments in U.S. foreign and domestic policy, Chomsky reveals Washington's plans to further militarize the planet, greatly increasing the risks of nuclear war. He also assesses the dangerous consequences of the occupation of Iraq; documents Washington's self-exemption from international norms, including the Geneva conventions and the Kyoto Protocol; and examines how the U.S. electoral system is designed to eliminate genuine political alternatives, impeding any meaningful democracy.

Forceful, lucid, and meticulously documented, Failed States offers a comprehensive analysis of a global superpower that has long claimed the right to reshape other nations while its own democratic institutions are in severe crisis. Systematically dismantling the United States' pretense of being the world's arbiter of democracy, Failed States is Chomsky's most focused--and urgent--critique to date.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:04 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The United States has repeatedly asserted its right to intervene militarily against "failed states" around the globe. Chomsky turns the tables, charging the United States with being a "failed state," and therefore a danger to its own people and the world. "Failed states," Chomsky writes, are those "that do not protect their citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction, that regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law, and that suffer from a 'democratic deficit,' having democratic forms but with limited substance." Exploring recent U.S. foreign and domestic policies, Chomsky assesses Washington's escalation of nuclear risks; the dangerous consequences of the occupation of Iraq; and Americas's self-exemption from international law. He also examines an American electoral system that frustrates genuine political alternatives, thus impeding any meaningful democracy.--From publisher description.… (more)

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