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Chomsky on Srebrenica, again

My first day back at work after my break. I had almost resolved not to write any more blog entries on this topic, and this one is old news anyway, but thanks to an email exchange with TK while I was away, I looked up his post to East Ethnia back in June which mentioned in passing the New Statesman interview with Noam Chomsky from earlier that month. This interview includes the surprising statement that:
The worst crime was Srebrenica but, unfortunately for the International Tribunal, there was an intensive investigation by the Dutch government, which was primarily responsible - their troops were there - and what they concluded was that not only did Milosevic not order it, but he had no knowledge of it. And he was horrified when he heard about it.
TK, not surprisingly, is puzzled about what Chomsky could mean. I think I can help. The "intensive investigation by the Dutch government" must surely refer to the exhaustive report of the Dutch Institute for War Documentation, published in April 2002. What the report actually states (in part III, chapter 6, section 9) is the following:
It is also not known whether Milosevic had any knowledge of the continuing Bosnian-Serb offensive that resulted in the occupation of the enclave. After the fall of the enclave, Milosevic made no mention to that effect to the UN envoy Thorvald Stoltenberg – he was too much of a poker player to reveal anything. On the other hand, Milosevic did express himself clearly later, in 1996, when he dropped the question to a group of Bosnian-Serb entrepreneurs as to ‘what idiot’ had made the decision to attack Srebrenica while it hosted international troops when it was obvious that, in any event, the enclave would eventually have been bled dry or become depopulated. It is not clear to what extent that statement had been intended to clear his responsibility for those events.
Obviously, Chomsky (being a top public intellectual) would not misquote from such a widely available document on such an important topic; there can be no doubt that he accurately cited the Dutch report to the New Statesman's reporter, who then wilfully misquoted him in order to make him look like an apologist for Milosevic. I hope his supporters will bombard the New Statesman with emails to demand they either correct the interview, or withdraw it from their website.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 23rd, 2006 03:28 pm (UTC)
I can see four claims in that Chomsky quote
1. The Dutch investigated
2. They found that Milosevic didn't order the attack on Srebenica
3. They found he didn't know about it (until afterwards, I suppose)
4. He was horrified that it had taken place

And your second quote seems to indicate that
1. The Dutch investigated
2. The found no evidence that Milosevic ordered the attack
3. They found no evidence that Milosevic knew about the attack (while it was in progress)
4. He said later that he thought the attack was stupid (though he may not have been sincere)

The big leap is between "horrified at an attack" and "horrified at the stupidity of those who chose to attack", and I'd be curious to know whether Chomsky read the report or read a secondary source that introduced that confusion. Either way, I think its a bit of a stretch to describe him as an apologist for Milosevic when at least three of the claims he makes are supported by his source. (and he referred to the report, he didn't quote it, so he can't have misquoted it)

And I don't see him arguing that Milosevic was generally a nice guy, or that Srebenica didn't happen, or that Serb violence was justified, at least one of which would be necessary (I think) to qualify him as an apologist.
Aug. 23rd, 2006 03:42 pm (UTC)
Come off it, Ray. Not a single one of your four claims is actually supported by the facts as reported. (The first claim, as Chomsky makes it, is that the Dutch government investigated; they did not - it was an independent institute.)

There is a huge leap between "Dutch government investigated and exonerated Milosevic", which is a reasonable summary of what Chomsky is quoted as saying, and "Dutch institute investigated, but was unable to reach a conclusion" which is a reasonable summary of what actually happened.

And surely most people would agree that, if you incorrectly state that someone has been exonerated when they haven't, you certainly are an apologist for that person.

But of course, Chomsky is too clever to get that sort of important detail wrong, so the New Statesman must have misquoted him.
Aug. 23rd, 2006 04:01 pm (UTC)
If the prevailing idea is that Milosevic ordered Srebenica, but a detailed investigation finds no evidence that he did... I think his statement is reasonable. Not as accurate as I would like, but not so far wrong that it demands urgent letters to the New Statesman with accusations of deliberate misquotation.
And if Chomsky thinks that Milosevic was a thoroughly nasty nationalist dictator, who bears a lot of responsibility for the Yugoslav civil war - but not Srebenica - then it's not fair to describe him as "an apologist for Milosevic", any more than someone who thinks that someone who thinks Stalin was a bastard but famine deaths in the 1920's were not as bad as some claim is therefore "an apologist for Stalin".
Aug. 23rd, 2006 04:15 pm (UTC)
If you think that equating "[Milosevic] had no knowledge of it" with "It is [] not known whether Milosevic had any knowledge..." is a reasonable statement, then we will have to agree to disagree on what "reasonable" means.
Aug. 23rd, 2006 06:39 pm (UTC)
I think that (in conversation at least, the standards for the written word are higher) the distinction is small. If the police investigate a murder and find no evidence to connect a suspect with the crime, is it unreasonable to say they found that he wasn't connected? It's inaccurate, I agree, but unreasonably so - given that this was a wide-ranging interview that had just moved on to Milosevic, and he obviously didn't have a copy of the report in front of him?

The thing that strikes me is that you are annoyed by Chomsky's summary of the report, and you think he is stretching the meaning beyond what it will bear. But I think you are stretching the significance of the episode beyond what it will bear by saying that this makes Chomsky an apologist for Milosevic. If he really is an apologist for Milosevic - someone who systematically defends him or justifies his policies - is there no point in his copious writings where he says "Milosevic was a pretty decent guy" or "the Serbs were right" or even just offers a clear statement about how he sees the breakdown of Yugoslavia?
Aug. 23rd, 2006 06:56 pm (UTC)
"If the police investigate a murder and find no evidence to connect a suspect with the crime, is it unreasonable to say they found that he wasn't connected?"

Yes it is, I believe. All they (the police) have said is that they have not found the evidence to prove or disprove that the suspect did the deed. In the case of the Report, what they said is that they couldn't find evidence that Milosevic knew about or ordered the massacre - Does this 'prove' that Milosevic wasn't involved or that he's a sneaky bastard who knows how to cover his ass.
Aug. 23rd, 2006 07:15 pm (UTC)
Yes it is, I believe.

Of course it is. I'm simply stunned that people who appear otherwise intelligent have difficulty with the difference between "I don't know if he did it" and "I know he didn't do it".
Aug. 23rd, 2006 09:05 pm (UTC)
I know there is a difference, I'm questioning the importance of the difference in this context.
I'm guessing that if someone was charged with a crime and brought to trial, and the case collapsed because the police brought no evidence of his guilt, we wouldn't be arguing about whether this meant he was innocent or that we just don't know.
I agree that this is different, but how different? And how important is that difference when we are discussing a passing remark in an interview, and not a written, re-written, and edited passage from a book?

What I frankly don't understand is the level of animus. If someone else was quoted as saying the same thing, would it have provoked a post?
Aug. 23rd, 2006 07:26 pm (UTC)
If the police investigate a murder and find no evidence to connect a suspect with the crime, is it unreasonable to say they found that he wasn't connected?

Well, yes, it is unreasonable to say that "I don't know if he did it" means the same as "I know he didn't do it". I'm astonished that you have any difficulty at all in seeing this.

This is the second time I have checked out one of Chomsky's quoted sources about Srebrenica to see what was actually said (the first being Richard Caplan's review of Diana Johnstone's book) and, just like the previous occasion, I have found his account (as reported) significantly different from what the source actually said (to the extent of not even being able to describe either source accurately).

I find his reported remarks on Srebrenica mealy-mouthed and equivocal. Marko Attila Hoare has done more research on the issue than I care to, and has a more damning verdict.
Aug. 23rd, 2006 07:50 pm (UTC)
I dunno... two things strike me. First of all, because people have got locked into this "Chomsky - an apologist for Milosevic" mode of thought, I can see a journalist misrepresenting or misunderstanding a comment of his to make it sound more favourable towards the great father of the Serbian race. Secondly, it could be that Chompers has just fallen into the classic lefty trap of assuming that Milosevic can't have been that bad really if the West hates him so much.

More generally, I have noticed this creeping Milosevic apologism in leftist discourse, either based around saying that any bad things he did were no worse than what regime X that the US/UK likes did, or else saying that actually he didn't do that many bad things at all. The latter strand is of course the Holocaust denial of our times.
Aug. 23rd, 2006 09:35 pm (UTC)
There's an awful lot to criticise in that Hoare post.

The initial comparison with David Irving really sets the tone. David Irving has made no secret of his fascist sympathies and his admiration for Hitler, and his Holocaust denial is an attempt to rehahabilitate the Nazis. Comparing Chomsky and Hitler is about as obvious a case of guilt by association as you could look for.

Then we go into the interview in the Guardian, shamefully pulled for the little matter of a made-up quote. (And this was presented as a direct quote, not a paraphrase)
That might not be important, if there was a quote from Chomsky actually denying the massacre. But Hoare doesn't produce such a quote, instead he produces this "‘Srebrenica was an enclave, lightly protected by UN forces, which was being used as a base for attacking nearby Serb villages. It was known that there’s going to be retaliation. When there was a retaliation, it was vicious. They trucked out all the women and children, they kept the men inside, and apparently slaughtered them. The estimates are thousands of people slaughtered.’"* So Chomsky says that there was a vivious attack, and all the men were slaughtered. But no - that's not good enough a condemnation, because it includes the words 'retaliation', 'apparently', 'estimates', and 'slaughtered'. Hang on, one of those doesn't belong...

Oh, here's a better quote - "The ‘Srebrenica massacre’ [note the quote marks] is the greatest triumph of propaganda to emerge from the Balkan wars... But the link of this propaganda triumph to truth and justice is non-existent." Okay, so it wasn't actually written by Chomsky, but it's someone who wrote a book with Chomsky 30 years ago, and posts to the same website ("a haven for neo-Stalinist die-hards" apparently), so Chomsky must agree? (Hoare's message is sponsored by The Henry Jackson Society a haven only for fine citizens with repectable political opinions)

It's a mess of complaints that
- Chomsky won't just come out and say "Milosevic was great and Srebenica didn't happen", which proves how cunning he is
- Chomsky persists in arguing for freedom of speech, even for people who turn out to be wrong (interestingly, the Faurisson case isn't brought up, even after the comparison with Irving. Perhaps Hoare didn't want to be forced to concede that Chomsky believes in freedom of speech for people he doesn't agree with, and isn't quite ready to argue that he's a Holocaust denier)
- Chomsky won't stop comparing massacres committed by bad people for bad ends with unfortunate civilian casualties that occurred while good people were pursuing noble political goals

*and this is the most equivocal and mealy-mouthed statement Hoare can come up with. I'm sure he looked.
Aug. 23rd, 2006 09:49 pm (UTC)
a quick google turns up
"The removal of the brutal and corrupt regimes of Serbia and Croatia (Milosevic and Tudjman were partners in crime throughout) is an important step forward for the region, and the mass movements in Serbia -- miners, students, innumerable others -- merit great admiration, and provide an inspiring example of what united and dedicated people can achieve. "

Hoare was very annoyed by the fact that Chomsky puts the word 'genocide' in quotation marks, so I found an example of that too
First, let's consider Milosovec's "genocide" in the period preceding the NATO bombings. According to NATO, 2000 people had been killed, mostly by Serb military, which by summer 1998 began to react (with retaliation against civilians) to guerrilla (KLA) attacks on police stations and civilians, based from and funded from abroad. And several hundred thousands of refugees were generated. (We might ask, incidentally, how the US would respond to attacks on police stations and civilians in New York by armed guerrillas supported from and based in Libya). That's a humanitarian crisis, but one of a scale that is matched or exceeded substantially all over the world right now, quite commonly with decisive support from Clinton. The numbers happen to be almost exactly what the State Department has just reported for Colombia in the same year, with roughly the same distribution of atrocities (and a far greater refugee population, since the 300,000 resulting from last year's atrocities are added to over a million from before). And it's a fraction of the atrocities that Clinton dedicated substantial efforts to escalating in Turkey in the same years, in the ethnic cleansing of Kurds. And on, and on. So if Milosovic is "genocidal," so are a lot of others -- pretty close to home. That doesn't say he's a nice guy: he's a monstrous thug. But the term "genocidal" is being waved as a propaganda device to mobilize the public for Clinton's wars."

There's plenty of room for disagreement with what Chomsky says, but since when does describing someone as a "monstrous thug" make you an apologist?
Aug. 23rd, 2006 08:58 pm (UTC)
People keep using the police analogy, which is handy because it enables us to look at things as the police would, and as courts cannot, which is to take into consideration people's previous form. What cannot be proved against Milosevic is only part of the point - we can detect a general line of things of which he was clearly guilty, things which he did not do, but encouraged, things he was not involved with but which gave him quiet satisfaction and so on. And he was morally responsible by complicity or instigation of many things of which no court could convict him.

I ask in the abstract, because I really want to know, does Chomsky hold to the same strict standard of proof when e.g. condemning American actions as he does when arguing that the case against Milosevic is unproven?
Aug. 23rd, 2006 09:44 pm (UTC)
I don't think he argues that Milosevic was not responsible for arming and supporting the Bosnian Serbs, or that they didn't carry out massacres. He argues that there's no evidence Milosevic ordered the Srebenica massacre, or even knew it was taking place.
A US analogy might be - when Gerald Ford okayed the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, his military and political support for Suharto's dictatorship certainly made massacres possible. But that doesn't mean that he actually ordered any given massacre, or even knew it was taking place.
Aug. 24th, 2006 10:59 am (UTC)
Last comment, honest
I think Chomsky's comments have to be interpreted in the light of his political project. He's been fairly consistent in two things for the last forty years -

he has been unbending in his support for freedom of speech, even speech he disagrees with, and
he is concerned with the difference in how actions are reported, depending on who carried them out. If an official enemy does something, they are directly responsible, the worst-case casualty reports aren't questioned (in the early reporting at least), and the terminology used is damning. If an ally (or the US) does something, the chain of responsibility is attenuated and uncertain (so the lower ranks are blamed, not the political leadership), causalty reports are vague and qualified, and so on.

Srebenica combines the two. He defends the right of people to publish unpopular (and possibly incorrect) arguments, and he questions the way the actions of the belligerents are reported.

Now, I can understand why Kamm, Aaronovitch, and the Henry Jackson society describe this as a denial of atrocities and sympathy with Milosevic. Their political project is completely different - they do think it matters whether a village was destroyed by good guys or bad guys, and they're in favour of agressive foreign policy. Whether they sincerely think 'opposition to US intervention against X' is the same thing as 'support for X', I don't know, but it obviously makes sense for them to describe it as such.

I can understand why other people could feel that the effect of Chomsky's interests is to make him too quick to believe evidence that makes official enemies seem less bad than they are, and too quick to dismiss contrary evidence. What I don't get is the imputation that he is motivated by a desire to defend those enemies.
Aug. 24th, 2006 11:44 am (UTC)
Re: Last comment, honest
I can't answer for any of the others you mention, but for me, Chomsky's dishonesty in quoting from his sources makes me doubt everything else he says, including about his own motivation.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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