Why Noam Chomsky’s Ukraine Comments Ruffled So Many Feathers
Noam Chomsky is a remarkably intelligent man. I freely admit that he’s forgotten more about international affairs than I will ever know. That being said, like all exceptionally brilliant thinkers, he does still have his fair share of intellectual blind spots.
One of those blind spots revealed itself when, in a recent interview with Current Affairs, Chomsky suggested that a negotiated settlement with Russia is the best option on the table for bringing the war in Ukraine to a close, implied that the United States was getting in the way of that settlement, and appeared to de-emphasize the seriousness of Putin’s unethical and criminal behavior.
“So I’m not criticizing Zelensky; he’s an honorable person and has shown great courage. You can sympathize with his positions. But you can also pay attention to the reality of the world. And that’s what it implies. I’ll go back to what I said before: there are basically two options. One option is to pursue the policy we are now following, to quote Ambassador Freeman again, to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. And yes, we can pursue that policy with the possibility of nuclear war. Or we can face the reality that the only alternative is a diplomatic settlement, which will be ugly — it will give Putin and his narrow circle an escape hatch. It will say, Here’s how you can get out without destroying Ukraine and going on to destroy the world.
We know the basic framework is neutralization of Ukraine, some kind of accommodation for the Donbas region, with a high level of autonomy, maybe within some federal structure in Ukraine, and recognizing that, like it or not, Crimea is not on the table. You may not like it, you may not like the fact that there’s a hurricane coming tomorrow, but you can’t stop it by saying, ‘I don’t like hurricanes,’ or ‘I don’t recognize hurricanes.’ That doesn’t do any good. And the fact of the matter is, every rational analyst knows that Crimea is, for now, off the table. That’s the alternative to the destruction of Ukraine and nuclear war. You can make heroic statements, if you’d like, about not liking hurricanes, or not liking the solution. But that’s not doing anyone any good.”
Chomsky has long held the United States to a much higher standard than he does the rest of the world — and that’s perfectly understandable. He is, after all, an American citizen. This is his home, his country, and his culture. He has spent his entire life standing face to face with America’s most glaring faults and failures and witnessed some of its most egregious transgressions play out in real time. It would be surprising if he wasn’t harder on America than he is on nearly every other nation.
As anti-imperialist activists are sometimes wont to do, however, Chomsky occasionally frames international conflicts in a way that heaps disproportionate amounts of blame on America while simultaneously downplaying the villainy of America’s enemies. In this interview, Chomsky compares Vladimir Putin to a “hurricane.” But a hurricane is a force of nature. It isn’t sentient. It has no agency. The destruction it inflicts upon its targets is an output of its own natural programming. But Vladimir Putin is not a force of nature. He is sentient. He does have agency. He chose to invade Ukraine, and the consequences for that decision belong to him and him alone.
Chomsky doesn’t just appear to strip Putin of his agency, though. Earlier in the interview, he does the same thing to Ukraine when he suggests that we — and by “we,” he means the United States — should pursue a negotiated settlement with Russia. In doing so, he seems to conflate the Ukrainians’ desire to defend their nation with the (alleged) American desire to draw this conflict out for the sake of harming Russia at Ukraine’s expense.
“I don’t know if you saw it. But a couple of days ago, there was a very important interview by one of the most astute and respected figures in current U.S. diplomatic circles, Ambassador Chas Freeman. A very important interview. He pointed out that the current U.S. policy, which he bitterly criticized, is to ‘fight Russia to the last Ukrainian,’ and he gave us an example: President Biden’s heroic statement about the war criminal Putin — [Biden’]s counterpart as a war criminal. And Freeman pointed out the obvious: the U.S. is setting things up so as to destroy Ukraine and to lead to a terminal war.”
But what if the Ukrainian people don’t want a negotiated settlement? What if they recognize that making any concessions at all might encourage Putin to invade their nation again in the future and finish what he started in February? Chomsky surely wouldn’t want the U.S. to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty by imposing its own will on the Ukrainian people and forcing them to sacrifice some of their land to Putin — would he?
Furthermore, the fact that Chomsky regards Freeman’s opinion as gospel is itself a bit concerning. This is the same Charles “Chas” Freeman who believes that the Tiananmen Square Massacre was totally justifiable. It’s hardly a surprise that his position on the war seems to favor the authoritarian regime in Moscow.
To be clear, at no point in the Current Affairs interview does Chomsky completely absolve Putin of his sins, nor does he ever cross the line into victim-blaming territory by arguing that Ukraine, by virtue of its defiance, is directly responsible for the continuation of this war. But it’s not unfair to interpret Chomsky’s remarks as a roundabout way of shifting some of the blame for the current state of affairs in Ukraine off of Putin’s shoulders and onto the shoulders of the American empire that Chomsky is always so eager to criticize. And if he does in fact agree that America should shoulder anything more than the tiniest shard of blame for this war, it’s not unfair to challenge that position.
When Chomsky steps into the ring to go toe-to-toe with American foreign policy, he often lands his punches with ease. American history is replete with repulsive politics that would come as a genuine shock to the many millions of Americans who are, for instance, completely unaware of the CIA’s morally reprehensible activities during the Cold War. But not every villain is a product of American interventionism, nor is every international conflict a consequence of American imperialism. Sometimes, bad people do bad things entirely of their own accord. And that’s the story of the Ukraine war, a war started by an egomaniacal, authoritarian Russian president whose motives are no less imperialist in nature than those of the old British Empire, and whose actions cannot be blamed on NATO, the United States, President Biden, or anyone other than Putin himself.