Perilous Power

Issue section: 
(317)

Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

The interview format of Perilous Power allows its authors an unusual amount of space to expound their views on 9/11 conspiracies, the rise of Islamism, the Iraqi insurgency, boycotting Israel, the chances of an attack on Iran and a host of other issues.

The result is mainly fascinating and informative. Chomsky effectively dismisses 9/11 conspiracy theories, complaining that, apart from being implausible, they "divert attention from the real crimes and real threats" committed by the US. Together, Achcar and Chomsky outline a convincing explanation of US foreign policy since 9/11. They strip away the "civilising mission" rhetoric, take apart the idea that the Israel lobby is the motor force and explain that the US is in the Middle East to try and ensure its global dominance in the face of growing threats, particularly from China, through control of oil.

Chomsky stresses that the stakes are much higher for the US than in Vietnam: "Withdrawing from Iraq would mean utter catastrophe for American world dominance."

Achcar's analysis of politics in Iraq is one of the highlights of the book. His account is completely at odds with the "drift towards civil war" chorus line. He explains why the US's attempts to shape the government failed early on and the occupiers fell back on a divide and rule strategy precisely to stop a united anti-occupation force from emerging.

This is the root cause of the "incipient civil war", not inherent sectarianism. He also points out that the Sadrists and other forces have been trying to counter communalism by pushing for united nationalist organisation. Despite early successes, when the last words of this book were recorded in the summer of 2006, Muqtada al-Sadr's efforts were being blocked. But as Achcar points out, he still has "formidable clout" among the downtrodden Shias.

The long section on Palestine is the least satisfying part of this engrossing book. There is still a lot here that is of interest, including a dissection of the Zionist ideology of settlements.

Achcar explains in detail how the degeneration of the PLO is the product of its long term strategy of cosying up to Washington. But in comparison with the rest of the book the focus narrows. Chomsky's starting point - from which he shifts a little - is that the Palestinians need to be realistic on the right of return in order to avoid playing into the hands of the Israeli right wing.

Both authors end the section arguing that the key to progress in Palestine is winning over public opinion in the West to the Palestinians' cause. But it would probably be worth saying that hastening the withdrawal of troops from Iraq would be our most effective act of solidarity.

The potential for growth of anti-imperialist and pro-democracy movements in the Middle East itself is barely discussed in this context and is surely of immediate importance to Palestinians. Perhaps this is because of the religious nature of much of the current opposition, but a challenge from below to the pro-western governments of the region is one of the possible spin offs of the "war on terror" and deserves more attention in such a serious analysis.