Noam Chomsky Versus Me

I was a bit surprised to learn that while on vacation, Noam Chomsky took a shot at me during his Acceptance speech for the 2011 Sydney Peace Prize. I’m especially surprised to see the particular shot he took, since I actually took myself to be making a Chomskyish point at the time. Jonathan Schwarz flagged this and provided the correct context, but I’ll rehash it here myself since frankly I’m kind of tickled by the idea that Chomsky is bothering to misstate my views about things.

I took the view that the killing of Osama bin Laden was duly authorized by the United Nations Security Council and therefore perfectly legitimate under international law and ended with a twist:

That’s not to say one can raise no objections to this. Viewing terrorism as a primarily military problem is a mistake that led the United States into a lot of policy errors. I hope we’ll turn away from this. And of course if you’re Pakistani you might look at this series of events and say that international law looks kind of bogus. They didn’t even get a vote on the Security Council! What kind of sense does it make for the US, China, and Russia to get together and tell the world which countries may and may not be subject to SEAL raids? This would also be a very valid point for a political radical like Chomsky to raise. But it is what it is. International law is made by states, powerful states have a disproportionate role in shaping it, and powerful states have obvious reasons to not be super-interested in the due process of suspected international terrorists or the sensibilities of mid-sized countries. Many people are pacifists and/or strong critics of western military power, and that’s fine. But it’s simply not the case that international law is identical with these policy preferences. On the contrary, one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers.

Here’s Chomsky’s gloss on that:

There were a few criticisms of Operation Geronimo – the name, the manner of its execution, and the implications. These elicited the usual furious condemnations, most unworthy of comment, though some were instructive. The most interesting was by the respected left-liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias. He patiently explained that “one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers,” so it is “amazingly naïve” to suggest that the US should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. The words are not criticism, but applause; hence one can raise only tactical objections if the US invades other countries, murders and destroys with abandon, assassinates suspects at will, and otherwise fulfills its obligations in the service of mankind. If the traditional victims see matters somewhat differently, that merely reveals their moral and intellectual backwardness.

I think my initial claim was very clear, but I’ll state it again: International law, as it exists, was not written by pacifists, political radicals, or grassroots communities in small or weak states. It was, rather, written by political elites who are not committed to pacifism or radical politics via a process in which militarily strong states have disproportionate weight. Therefore, people who are committed to pacifism or radical politics shouldn’t be surprised to find that the existing body of international law often fails to support their policy ideas. The founding purpose of the United Nations Security Council is to create a mechanism to legitimize great powers’ desire to use violent force abroad over the objections of smaller states. Simply because something is legal doesn’t make it right. It’s totally illogical and immoral, for example, for the governments of Russia and France to have more weight in the U.N. than the government of India and Japan. But it’s not “illegal.” The existing legal framework is a compromise between the victors of World War II, not a vindication of abstract justice.