Oil Imperialism and the US-Israel Relationship

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Roger Hurwitz, David Woolf & Sherman Teichman

Leviathan, 1:1-3, Spring, 1977, pp. 6-9, 86 [March, 1977]

QUESTION: Given the fact that now you have a government dominated by people like Carter and Brzezinski who were deeply involved in the Trilateral Commission, which emphasized maintaining a strong relationship with both Western Europe and Japan, will there be a new emphasis on new policy?

CHOMSKY: First of all, I don’t think there is any significant difference between the Trilateral view and the Kissinger view. The difference is more in style than in content. Many people in power regarded Kissinger as a kind of nut. He understood the basic ideas but he was playing the game like a clown, with the show for the media and the personal nonsense. That’s not the way you conduct serious affairs. I think the Trilateral Commission is, in effect, taking the basic thrust of Kissinger’s policies and is trying to implement them with a rational plan, without the dangerous clowning. When things become personalized and an erratic, irrational person takes over, you never know what’s going to happen. The Commission would rather have done it in a sensible coordinated way.

But Trilateralism still means that Europe and Japan ought to be subordinated to overall American interests. There’s no deviation from that policy. Trilateralism is a shift from the policy of, say, thirty years ago, when it was assumed that the U.S. would unilaterally organize most of the world. Now everyone has to recognize that there are other sources of power within the so-called First World, the world of industrial capitalism, but those are supposed to be regional powers.

QUESTION: It’s almost a capitalist version of polycentrism.

CHOMSKY: Yes, with exactly the same tacit conditions that are already assumed in polycentrism, that there’s one power that’s the first power. Kissinger made the policy very explicit — one of Kissinger’s problems from the point of view of the ruling class is that he’s much too explicit.

QUESTION: Is there a U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?

CHOMSKY: Yes. There’s been a very consistent U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, at least since the Second World War, whose primary concern has been to ensure that the energy reserves of the Middle East remain firmly under American control. The State Department noted in 1945 that these reserves constitute “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”1

Basically it is a policy meant to keep Saudi Arabia, which has by far the largest known stores of petroleum, under American control. This has been quite explicit since World War II. In fact, during the war the government tried to expel Britain, and later France, from the region. There were forms of chicanery used to achieve that end, which was achieved, certainly, by the formation of ARAMCO [Arabian American Oil Company] in 1947.

Given U.S. control over Western Hemisphere resources, the United States thus effectively controlled the major energy reserves of the noncommunist world, with all that implied with regard to the organization of international society.2 A number of years later, the American position in the Middle East was extended. Following the CIA-backed coup in Iran in 1953, American oil companies controlled 40% of Iranian oil. By the mid 50s, American dominance of the region and total dominance of Saudi Arabia was virtually complete.

American penetration of the Saudi economy and military has been extensive. There are now about 30,000 Americans in Saudi Arabia, mostly ARAMCO employers. U.S. exports to Saudi Arabia and Iran amounted to $28 billion each in 1976, with sales to Saudi Arabia projected to reach $4.8 billion in 1977.

QUESTION: How deeply are we involved?

CHOMSKY: A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report estimated that by 1980, there may be 50,000-60,000 Americans in Iran, many engaged in military training.

Furthermore, OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] investments in the West, with the U.S. share doubling to 44% in early 1970, have relieved balance-of-payments problems and “help explain the dollar’s strength” and “the recovery of the American stock market earlier this year.”3 Saudi Arabian investment in U.S. Treasury Bonds is unofficially estimated at $5 to $10 billion, though it is a closely guarded secret.4

QUESTION: Could you comment on the approach that says that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East isn’t credible unless we have an independent energy policy?

CHOMSKY: That’s based on a complete misunderstanding. Suppose the U.S. had 100% of its own energy right here. That wouldn’t affect in the least American desire to control the Middle East because we want to make sure that nobody else has access to those cheap resources of energy. One of the ways the U.S. keeps control over Europe and Japan is by having a stranglehold on their energy supply. Therefore, if there was a solar energy or shale breakthrough, giving the U.S. its own energy supply completely independent of Middle East oil, we still would want to ensure control over that region as long as Middle East oil remained cheap and accessible.

Back in 1945, the Western Hemisphere was, by a large margin, the largest producer of oil, with most of it coming from the U.S. or the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the U.S. was absolutely insistent on kicking the French out of that tiny share they had of Saudi Arabian oil. In fact, the U.S. pressed to get Europe and Japan to shift to an oil-based economy after the Second World War, in part as a way of ensuring American control over them. Europe and Japan both have coal, but it is better for the U.S. if they are dependent on a foreign, American-controlled source of energy. In a sense, the major potential enemies of the U.S. are Europe and Japan. Russia is another world. They control their own empire and we can’t do much about it at this point. But Europe and Japan are potential threats. They are the areas where most of the American investment is, so they have to be controlled by the American government.

The real fear of the U.S., which is occasionally voiced quite explicitly (for example in Kissinger’s “Year of Europe” speech in April 1973), is that Europe could become a system comparable to the U.S. in strength and that it would then set up the kind of bilateral arrangements with the Middle East and North Africa that we regard as an American prerogative. If this ever happened, the U.S. would in fact be a second class power in the world.

After the energy crisis erupted, Kissinger again (in January, 1974) warned against the development of bilateral arrangements with the oil producers, although the United States did not refrain from extending its own bilateral arrangements. The Washington Conference of February 1974 brought the EEC [European Economic Community] powers into line on this issue.

In a recent study for the Harvard University Center for International Affairs, Robert Lieber reviews the failure of France’s attempt to organize an independent European policy in the face of German-American agreement “on the need for an agreed code of conduct limiting bilateral deals.” The problem facing the EEC powers was that “to follow the French position meant a serious breach with the United States, which the Germans and then the British found intolerable. In the end, given America’s energy resources, its economic strength (particularly its limited vulnerability to international resource and financial problems), and its superpower military political standing, the Atlantic approach seemed to offer payoffs in dealing with tangible problems which the French-led policy simply could not deliver.” Simply put, American pressures to conform to U.S. “global interests and responsibilities,” strongly backed by Germany, could not be resisted. Lieber further notes that “it was widely observed that the U.S. had benefited from the crisis both economically (through her multinational oil companies and the weakening of rival economies) and politically (by the reassertion of her leadership) … the crisis left the U.S. more dominant and the community weakened in its influence on issues of security, finance, and economics because of its lack of a single voice.”5

QUESTION: How do you understand the oil-rate hikes?

CHOMSKY: I think part of the apparent American effort to maintain and raise oil prices can only be understood as an attempt (successful in this case) to punish and control our competitors, namely Europe and Japan. The rise in oil prices often attributed in the popular press to “Arab Sheikhs,” in fact has only a marginal relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. As noted in the Senate report cited above, “the leadership within OPEC in rising prices has come from Iran and Venezuela, countries which have a minimal interest in the Arab-Israeli dispute. ” Some commentators go so far as to claim that “Since 1971, the United States has encouraged Middle East oil-producing states to raise the price of oil and keep it up,”6 although by now the rise in price may be harming the American economy as well. This buttresses the basic American concern to control the energy resources and to use those resources as an implement to dominate the world of industrial capitalism.

One result of the oil embargo, in which the American oil companies were the cutting edge, was the wiping out of Japan’s dollar reserves. Although by 1976 Japan recovered somewhat, primarily because of her winning construction contracts with Arab countries, the embargo created a $2.5 billion trade deficit for Japan with Middle Eastern countries from 1973 to 1975. It is not simply a coincidence that the United States, Germany, and Japan are competitors and “leaders in the race to supply the oil-producing nations with consumer goods and equip them for rapid industrialization;”7 and that these countries are also the leaders in the recovery from world recession.

QUESTION: How did the embargo affect other areas of the international economy?

CHOMSKY: The rise in oil prices was accompanied by a comparable increase in the price of coal and uranium, and in fact other commodities as well. To cite only one case, “by the end of 1973, U.S. wheat exports cost three times as much per ton as they had little more than a year before.”8

As for the prospects that prices may drop, the analysis in the current London Economist Annual Review seems plausible enough; the consumer countries cannot organize to this end, for one reason, because “two of the most powerful of the so-called consumer countries, the United States and Britain, are now producers of high-cost oil themselves (in Alaska and the North Sea) and they would stand to lose enormous investments if the price of oil dropped substantially” (not to speak of the value of other energy resources). Furthermore, there is “widespread acceptance among energy experts of the fairness of today’s oil prices” which “are merely what had long be expected by the end of the 1970s anyway…”9 One person’s “fairness,” of course, is another’s “cruel exploitation,” but those with the power are generally in the former camp, not only in this regard.

QUESTION: Would you comment on the relation between the U.S. government’s policy and the interests of the American oil companies?

CHOMSKY: The oil companies are the major international corporations. Since oil has become important, they have virtually owned the State Department. They are the corporations within the American imperialist system that have the greatest concern for American foreign policy. Because they have the largest overseas investments, their influence over foreign policy has always been extremely strong.

But it would be a mistake to say that the government is controlled by the oil companies. The government policy reflects the over-all interests of American capitalism. So, on occasion, the particular interests of the oil companies may seem rather parochial and short-sighted from the point of view of the larger interests of American capitalism.

We can see how this worked in Iran. In the wake of the CIA coup there, the U.S. government wanted American oil companies to take over a substantial part of Iranian oil. A government directive was issued to the oil companies explaining that it was “in the security interests of the United States” for them to help “provide to the friendly government of Iran substantial revenues on terms which will protect the interests of the Western World in the petroleum resources of the Middle East.”10

For reasons having to do with rather myopic and narrow business concerns, the oil companies weren’t particularly interested in the plan. They simply had too much oil. They wanted to ensure their position in Saudi Arabia, and realized that joining the consortium would reduce their liftings form Saudi Arabia. In accord with the long-run interests of American capitalism, the government simply stepped in and ordered them to join.

A position paper put out at the time by the Departments of State, Defense and Interior to the National Security Council simply described the oil companies as instruments of U.S. foreign policy and concluded that they should be treated as such. In return and on grounds of “national security” Truman called for termination of antitrust actions against the companies in January 1953.

American scholars typically take such incidents as support for the general doctrine to which they are committed, namely, that the government simply serves some abstract “national interest” and that policy is at best marginally influenced by the concern of major corporations. Myra Wilkins, for example, notes that “The Truman Doctrine, for instance, committed the United States to defend Greece and Turkey against Communism, and in the process created security for corporate Middle Eastern oil investments; yet, Texaco’s chairman of the board testified that the promulgation of the doctrine caught him by surprise,”11 referring to Senate testimony.

QUESTION: How literally should one take such testimony?

CHOMSKY: It is an open question, but it may well be accurate. If so, the case simply illustrates a natural principle, quite well-supported by such evidence as is available: corporate executives are concerned with specific problems of maximizing profit, extending market control, and the like, while the state executive, largely staffed by their representatives, is concerned with long-term, enduring and general interests of American capitalism.

The case for the standard doctrine would be stronger if foreign policy were not so systematically directed to “creating security for corporate Middle Eastern oil investments” and the like. As long as the state uses its power to enhance “profits beyond the dreams of avarice,”12 as in the case of the oil companies, and to secure the conditions for their enhancement it is hardly necessary for those concerned directly with business operations to attempt to intervene in affairs of state.

QUESTION: Could you speak in more detail about the oil companies owning the State Department and the way that is manifested in terms of policy?

CHOMSKY: Well, if you look at the staffing of the top positions in the State Department, it has been pretty much an oil company preserve. Most of the top people in the Department come from either energy corporations, from the Rockefeller Foundation or from law firms that are very closely linked to oil corporations. The mechanism is very obvious. Say you have a regulatory commission that regulates the railroads. The railroads are going to try to get control over it. Foreign policy is analogous to regulation of affairs affecting international corporations, and therefore they’re going to try to gain control over it, which they’ve largely done.

QUESTION: Will U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East shift if they find larger oil reserves there? It has been projected that China, by the year 1990, will be producing eight million barrels of oil a day.

CHOMSKY: I know of no evidence for that at all. China has larger oil reserves than anybody thought, but it doesn’t begin to compare with the Middle East as far as anybody knows. There have been reports coming from Japan that China has refused to supply them with oil except through American oil companies. I suspect that when the history of this period becomes known, we’ll discover that one of the reasons for the sudden American interest in China is to ensure that China doesn’t form a kind of close trading bloc with Japan, instead of working for American interests for control of Japan. The evidence is much too sparse, but I suspect that something of the sort is going on. So even though China’s oil resources are much less than those of the Middle East, the U.S. is very concerned that China not supply our industrial rivals independently.

QUESTION: Does the Soviet Union have a foreign policy in the Middle East?

CHOMSKY: Yes. It would like to have as much influence as possible in the region but the Soviet Union understands very well that that’s an area of primary American concern. Just as the Soviet Union will brook no American interference in Eastern Europe, which is of primary concern to them, they know that the U.S. will brook no interference in the Middle East, which is of primary concern to the U.S.

Russian policy has been fairly constant since World War II. It has been what they call “detente,” which is to say, there are two big superpowers and each controls an empire and they leave each other alone. Basically the U.S. doesn’t intervene in Eastern Europe and Russia doesn’t intervene in the American empire. That is why Stalin tried to call off the Greek guerrillas. (Incidentally, Greece was considered part of the Middle East at the time; in fact, Greece was in the Middle East section of the State Department.) Stalin succeeded in getting the French communists to cooperate with the restoration of capitalism with American dominance and he expected in return that the U.S. would allow him to control everything in Eastern Europe that he wanted. And that’s more or less the way it has worked out, rhetoric aside.

Russia will try to maintain what influence it can in the Middle East, but there’s no evidence that it’s willing to risk a nuclear war, which is probably what would happen if it ever made any serious moves in the region. At the end of the October [1973] War, the Russians asked the U.S. to have a joint peacekeeping force in the Sinai to impose the cease-fire. The U.S. refused. We weren’t going to allow any Russian troops in the region. The Russians then made some veiled threats to do it themselves, at which point the U.S. called a worldwide nuclear alert, and we came unpleasantly close to a nuclear confrontation, over virtually nothing. I don’t think anyone is going to seriously threaten American dominance over the region. It would very likely lead to war.

QUESTION: At the moment, the parochial interests of the oil companies appear to involve a commitment to political accommodation in the Middle East.

CHOMSKY: Yes, that’s true. They are pressing very hard — privately, publicly, anyway they can — to persuade the U.S. government to take an “even-handed stand,” a code word for support of a two-state solution on the ’67 borders. For years the oil companies have been pressing for this solution, on their own and through the Saudi Arabian government, but the U.S. government has ignored the pressure. My speculation is that the U.S. regards the current situation as extremely favorable to their long-term interests. The tension, the high level of armaments, the military confrontation, are favorable, and the strength of Israel and Iran poses a strong military threat to independent action on the part of the oil-producing powers. It’s an extremely dangerous policy, but that’s the way it is.

That’s one view, which has been held by virtually everyone. It seems to have been Kissinger’s view, for example.

QUESTION: Were there different views?

CHOMSKY: There were sharp differences in outlook between individuals. Many are hard to identify because they don’t speak out much, but we can compare, for example, the views of Secretaries of State William Rogers and Kissinger. Rogers’ view was that there should be a political settlement, meaning something like returning to the June ’67 borders, with a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, and various other conditions of demilitarization and national guarantees. Let’s call that a “two-state settlement.” When Kissinger took control of Middle East policy in the Fall of 1970 (according to his testimony), there was an abrupt switch in official American policy, from Rogers plan rhetoric to Kissinger rhetoric. Under Kissinger’s initiative, the United States by late 1970 abandoned even a rhetorical commitment to a political settlement and was clearly supporting a very different program, namely, the Israeli program of developing and ultimately annexing substantial parts of the occupied territories, a policy that led directly to the October 1973 war.

Israel’s development policies as well as numerous official and semi-official pronouncements make it clear that the goal is to realize the so-called “Allon Plan,” which would integrate into Israel the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, parts of Northeastern Sinai with a strip of the Sinai extending to Sharm El-Sheikh (Israeli Ophira), the Jordan valley, a large area around Jerusalem, and substantial other parts of the West Bank, excluding areas of Arab population concentration. The latter areas would be left under local or Jordanian civil administration and Israeli military control, thus alleviating what is referred to in Israel as “the demographic problem,” namely, the problem of incorporating a large Arab population into a Jewish state, while still facilitating the flow of organized Arab workers into Israel as a cheap labor force.

The real choices are between political accommodation and military confrontation. The American government is split over the question. Consider someone like Edward Sheehan. My suspicion is that Edward Sheehan speaks for the CIA. I’m told he was the political officer in the Egyptian embassy in the 1950s, which is usually a CIA post, and I suspect that he speaks from a point of view that exists in the “intelligence community,” favoring political accommodation. A political settlement is a perfectly satisfactory fall-back position for American imperialism. It would probably cut down the conflict in the region, at least the Arab-Israeli conflict.

So here are two easily crystallized positions, both of them being realistic options for the region. The U.S. government has consistently supported the first, Israeli occupation, which is essentially a drift toward the Allon Plan. That would leave Israel, from a superficial point of view, in a very powerful position. In fact, I think it would leave Israel in a very precarious position because the military confrontations are very dangerous and very damaging internally. But if you add up the guns, Israel is in a very strong short-term position, and could be instrumental in U.S. domination of the Middle East. The U.S. government doesn’t care about the long-term consequences — whether Israel exists or fails to exist. What they care about is that the U.S. dominate the region as long as it’s an important region in world affairs.

Anyone who didn’t hold that position simply couldn’t get near the center of government because it’s just too crucial for American capitalism. The Middle East oil reserves are, by a very large margin, the largest and the cheapest energy resources in the world, and whoever has control over them runs a good part of the world.

QUESTION: How much autonomy over foreign policy does the U.S. allow the area?

CHOMSKY: I wouldn’t think that the oil-producing countries could ever stray very far from the American fold, at least Saudi Arabia couldn’t. The U.S. controls the region through a kind of tripartite alliance of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The alliances with Israel and Iran are completely overt. The relation to Saudi Arabia is much more complex. On the one hand, the Saudis have an interest in restoring Arab control over Jerusalem; in fact, they would like to control the entire area. On the other hand, they also have a stake in Israeli power, deriving from the desire of their ruling elite to see the maturity of American hegemony over the region, which would serve their interests very efficiently. They want to be merged into the American system; they want to ensure that there’s no Russian influence there; they want to make sure that any radical or nationalist currents within the Arab world are crushed or contained. For all three purposes, American hegemony over the region is useful. Israeli power, like Iranian power, serves that interest, so their position is somewhat ambiguous and very crucial. What Saudi Arabia decides to do will very strikingly affect the future of the region.

Iran, to take another part of this tripartite alliance, has a fairly big population, but it’s a mixture since half of it is not Persian. It’s being armed to the teeth by the U.S. and it will be a major force in the region both militarily and economically. Iran is closely allied with Israel. Iran supplies Israel with oil and Israel is involved in training Iranian military and administrators. There are Iranian students here at MIT who studied in Israel. They don’t make a fuss about it, but that’s the case.

The logic of this policy is that the U.S. wants to guarantee the “stability” of the major oil producers by posing a strong military threat, particularly against Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are not causing any problems now, but given the instability of the Arab world, it’s possible that there might be a Qadaffist coup or something similar, which has come close to happening. If Saudi Arabia ever got out of hand, the U.S. would want to be in a strong position to threaten them. Even more important, they want the Saudi Arabians to recognize that their position is extremely precarious: it is in the interest of the Saudi Arabian ruling class, seeking to maintain their own autonomy, to play the American game. Saudi Arabia is where more of the oil is, and in another twenty or thirty years that’s going to be where almost all the oil is.

The Saudi refusal in December 1976 to join the OPEC countries in a price rise was generally regarded as a move to induce the United States to move towards a political settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But here, too, complications abound. This policy would be meaningful if Saudi Arabia were to expand its production significantly, thus driving other producers out of the international market. Early indications raise questions about Saudi intentions. Production did in fact rise rapidly in early January, but was significantly reduced in the latter part of the month. Average daily production for January was lower that it was in December, before the new prices went into effect.13

The reduction was attributed in the press to inclement weather, but foreign minister Prince Saud al-Feisal stated in late January that Saudi Arabia “still has not taken any decision about increasing our oil production,” while the Iranian foreign minister said a few days later that he believes “what my colleague Saud has said,” and the Iranian press quoted the oil minister of Qatar as saying “as far as I know officially, Saudi Arabia will not increase its production.”14

The Shah announced in January that overproduction by Saudi Arabia would be considered “an act of aggression against us,” and veiled threats have appeared in the official Iranian press.15 While a war in the Persian Gulf is the last thing that the U.S. government desires, it may nevertheless view with some favor the potential threat posed to the Arab oil producers by the military powers to which it is closely allied. A Senate report on Iran notes that “the possibility of conflict with the Arabs in the future cannot be discounted, especially if there were to be a revolution in Saudi Arabia and the present regime was replaced by more extremist anti-Western elements.”16

Incidentally, Iran might invade that area anyway. Iran is going to run out of oil in twenty or thirty years, and it doesn’t strike me as very likely that it will go back to being a tenth-rate power when they see all that oil sitting right across the Gulf. They have an enormous military establishment and in, say, ten years, they may be able to run their army without American technicians. What they may decide to do is simply invade and take over Saudi Arabia.

QUESTION: What is Israel’s relationship to the U.S.?

CHOMSKY: Israel is virtually a dependency of the United States. U.S. exports to Israel, amounting to $1.4 billion in 1976, are exceeded only by those to Saudi Arabia and Iran. But because every other aspect of the problem of the Middle East is fitted into the framework of old reserves, American attitudes towards Israel will vary as they bear on the problem of maintaining control of Middle Eastern energy resources.

Consider the U.S. reaction to Israel’s conquest of the Sinai in 1956 and in 1967. In 1956, the U.S. strongly opposed that action. Eisenhower and Dulles were quite forthright and outspoken about it a few days before the presidential election, allegedly a time when political considerations are paramount. Political considerations aside, the U.S. openly compelled Israel to withdraw from the Sinai, not caring about its impact in the presidential election. In contrast, the U.S. supported Israel’s conquest of the Sinai in 1967 and has been backing it since that time.

What was the difference between 1956 and 1967? In 1956, Israel was allied with France and England who were trying to reestablish some position of significance in the Middle East, believing still they had some role to play in regulating the affairs of the region. Since Israel was collaborating with rivals of the U.S. in the region, the conquest became illegitimate.

In 1967, Israel was closely allied to the U.S. directly. As a result, the conquest was quite legitimate. U.S. government support of Israel is more or less in accord with the American perception of Israel’s strength. The stronger Israel becomes, the more it is able to assist the U.S. in maintaining control of the region, so the more the U.S. will support it. Though the pretense has always been that we’re supporting Israel because it is in danger, the opposite would be a much more accurate statement. American support for Israel is contingent upon its strength and ability to aid in maintaining American domination of the Middle East.

QUESTION: Would you explain the logic in American policy that sees a strong Israeli military position as being in the interests of the U.S?

CHOMSKY: Since 1967 it’s been plain that Israel is, by a long shot, the strongest military power in the region. Contrary to what people believe, it’s one of the richest countries in the region, in terms of the GNP per capita. Though not as rich as the oil emirates, it is richer than most of the oil-producing nations. Furthermore, it’s an advanced technological society. Its wealth and economic strength are not just contingent on some depreciable resource.

American planners have regarded Israel as a barrier to Russian penetration, and have assumed that “the demise of Israel… likely would see increased Soviet influence …”17 Israeli power protected the “monarchical regimes” of Jordan and Saudi Arabia from “a militarily strong Egypt” in the 1960s, thus securing American interests in the major oil-producing regions.

The Senate’s ranking oil expert, Senator Henry Jackson, is only one of those who have emphasized “the strength and Western orientation of Israel on the Mediterranean and Iran on the Persian Gulf,” two “reliable friends of the United States,” who, along with Saudi Arabia, “have served to inhibit and contain those irresponsible and radical elements in certain Arab states … who, were they free to do so, would pose a grave threat indeed to our principal sources of petroleum in the Persian Gulf.”18

For such reasons, the United States has tacitly supported the Israeli occupation of surrounding Arab territories as well as the forceable takeover of Arab islands by Iran in 1971. The Irano-Israeli alliance not only protects reactionary Arab states allied with the United States, but also stands as a constant threat to them, should they make unwelcome moves. More generally, it is argued that “the Israeli-Iranian interrelationship — wittingly or unwittingly — has contributed to” the stability of the Indian Ocean Basin: “the quiet in the eye of a hurricane.”19

QUESTION: There seems to be a self-contradictory logic within the U.S. policy.

CHOMSKY: There is. The stronger these countries become, the more likely it is that they’ll do something outside the control of the U.S. foreign policy. It is an extremely hazardous game and, as we know, it often fails. Hitler was playing a hazardous game and he lost.

QUESTION: Vance has recently condemned Israel’s oil exploration in the Sinai. If the U.S. is interested in a strong Israel, why do they inhibit its independent military capacity by denying it an independent source of petroleum, oil, and lubricants?

CHOMSKY: That’s a real bone of contention. For one thing, the U.S. would rather not have Israel have its own internal resources. They want it to be dependent on the U.S. Furthermore, Israel is infringing on the interests of major American corporations in the case of the Gulf of Suez.

American oil companies are linked with Egyptian explorations and liftings and Israel is simply taking over part of the area that they regard as theirs. The thing is pretty small at the moment and it doesn’t involve any major oil resources, so the U.S. isn’t pressing very hard. But they’ve always described Israeli actions there as illegal and they simply reiterated it at this point. Of course, what “legality” means is what the big powers determine; it’s another rhetorical term. To say that it’s illegal is another way of saying, “We disapprove of it and, if we disapprove enough, we’ll make you stop it.”

QUESTION: What are the consequences for Israeli society of playing the American game?

CHOMSKY: The effect on Israel will be very corrosive, both economically and psychologically. There’s a tremendous economic drain into military expenditures and that’s only going to increase. Furthermore, a commitment to military production is becoming a larger and larger element in the Israeli economy, both internally and for export, and the tie with the U.S. is a strong part of that. This drain of resources in the military means that they can’t face internal social problems which are very serious, such as the problem of the Sephardic oriental Jewish community. That’s never going to be faced as long as there’s a militarized economy. It will become an economy sharply split along class lines, with an extremely rich sector connected to advanced technology and commerce, and the rest of the population will be suppressed and very poor.

The psychological effect will be harder to estimate, but it is very significant. As long as the occupation persists, there will be an unconquerable temptation to use cheap Arab labor, which is what is happening. Israel will inevitably move toward a kind of South African situation, in which there’s a very cheap labor force which is atomized and can’t organize. They’ll take over a good part of the productive labor of the country. This is already starting to happen. That can only have the effect of encouraging racism and all the kinds of attitudes that come along with exploiting a cheap labor force which is totally under your control.

In my opinion, in ten or twenty years the kibbutzim will become a collective management using Arab labor, running factories off the premises, and living in the urban suburbs. It will be extremely hard for them to do anything else. They’ve got to compete in the capitalist market, which means they have to use the cheapest working force available. At every point, the effect of all this on Israeli culture is frightening. I find it very depressing to read the Israeli press; the attitudes expressed are outrageous. You can’t avoid these attitudes when you’re oppressing other people and using that oppression as the basis for your prosperity. You have to have a moral justification for it, and the justification is racism.

QUESTION: With the weakening position of the PLO after Lebanon, are the bargaining positions in the Middle East strong enough to achieve a political settlement?

I think a political settlement was possible long before Lebanon. The Palestinians are a very weak force and, furthermore, since 1974, before the disintegration of Lebanon, Palestinians had been pretty clear in saying that they would accept something like a separate state. They certainly have made indications that that would be true, and they have no choice. If Israel had come out for two states in 1967, they would have accepted it. They might have spoken about “our historic rights,” but nobody cares what governments say about historic rights or their dreams or their long-term goals. What is important is the concrete political situation. Israel can have a declaration on record saying that it has historic rights to Eretz Yisrael — the “historical land of Israel” but that has no role in policy and we properly disregard it. Well, properly we ought to disregard the comparable things said by the PLO.

QUESTION: Would the State Department prefer to leave the Saudi Arabians and the Syrians to their own devices in pressuring the Palestinians to accept a two-state solution rather than apply pressure to Israel directly?

CHOMSKY: Well, there is nothing much to put pressure on the Palestinians about. The Palestinians barely survive as an organized group. Taking them to be the barrier to a settlement is already submitting oneself to the propaganda system. Israel’s argument that it can’t deal with the Palestinians always turns on Palestinian rhetoric, but that rhetoric doesn’t mean much. The objective situation is that the Palestinians are and always have been extremely weak except as a disruptive force within the Arab world. Countries like Saudi Arabia would like to have the disruptive force controlled, which is one of the reasons they would like to have a small state. It would undoubtedly be run by conservative elements among the Palestinians, and it would be very much subject to the forces of other Arab states as well as Israel. That would probably terminate the disruptive role that Palestine plays in the Middle East. Sheehan essentially said this.

QUESTION: Where does Jordan figure into the picture?

CHOMSKY: The two positions I have described have a particular consequence with regard to Hussein. The position in favor of Israeli dominance as an American lever says, “Let’s let Hussein be the spokesman for the Palestinians.” The position in favor of the political settlement says, “Let’s put Hussein out of the picture and make a Palestinian state.” It’s interesting that the information about the Hussein payments from the CIA was leaked precisely at the time when Vance was visiting Hussein. That looks too neat. My guess is that it was a CIA leak to support the political settlement by undermining Hussein. The payments weren’t a big secret, everyone knew about them, but they decided to make a big fuss about them at the time.

QUESTION: What can one do to encourage a rapprochement between Palestinian definitions of the legitimacy of Israeli self-determination and Israeli recognition of Palestinian national right?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think that is the central issue. I think that rapprochement will come about by itself once the U.S. moves toward a political accommodation. The problem first of all will be to get the U.S. to accept the idea of a political settlement and then to get Israel to accept it. If those problems are overcome, rapprochement will take place by itself because there will be no alternative. So, while it is useful to have the Israeli-Palestinian meetings, their major utility is to influence public opinion about the possibility of this rapprochement. The possibility is there with or without those meetings, but they make it clear to the public that there is that possibility.

So far, Israel has been unwilling to accept that solution because it would mean giving up the occupied territory. Since 1967, Israel has been engaged in a very systematic attempt to implement the Allon Plan. The settlement policies have a very systematic character; if you trace them out, you see it is the Allon Plan. Israel wants to incorporate the Gaza Strip, Northeast Sinai, the Golan Heights, some corridor in East Sinai down to Sharm Al-Sheik, the Jordan Valley, and all parts of the West Bank that aren’t areas of heavy Arab population concentration. That would make up a much more powerful and rich state.

QUESTION: That so far excludes Nablus.

CHOMSKY: Well, Israeli opinion is split between a Gush Emunim or Greater Israel view which says, “we take everything,” and the Allon Plan view, the so-called dovish view, which says, “we exclude the areas of Arab population concentration.” I think the Gush Emunim have a more liberal plan than the Allon, in a sense, because under their policy, which is called the extremist right wing, at least Israel would have technical responsibility for the people in the areas that it annexes, whereas under the Allon Plan it would be like Bantustans. Israel would have those areas under local administrations and would have control but no responsibility to them. They wouldn’t be able to survive without integrating themselves, as people without any rights, into the Israeli economy.

Those two positions differ only on this issue, as far as I can see, on the issue of how to control the Arab population centers. The “extremists” would accord the Palestinians technical legal rights, which would give rise to the famous demographic problem. The Allon would keep them in a sort of Transkei, which would “avoid” the demographic problem.

The third, the real dovish view, the one that Moked holds, is that they ought to simply abandon the occupied territory and have a peaceful settlement with the Palestinian state. That appeals to a very small sector of opinion, which is not surprising. I can think of no historical example where a country has been willing to abandon territory it conquered. Often that has led to destruction. Over and over in history that has happened, but nobody ever learns from it, and the next time around…

QUESTION: You have spoken about the independence of the Jewish electorate and its impact on public opinion and policy, which you saw as minimal. Regarding recent Carter administration moves to limit the Arab boycott, has the situation changed?

CHOMSKY: I still make the same prediction, that the impact of the Jewish electorate will be minimal. No boycott legislation that has any serious effect on American business relations with Saudi Arabia and other oil producing states will ever be enacted, or if enacted will ever be administered. The whole thing has a tremendous air of hypocrisy about it. The Army Corps of Engineers has enormous projects in Saudi Arabia, and every one of those projects has to meet the Saudi boycott conditions. The big projects are always ratified by an individual act of Congress. That means that while Congress is supporting the boycott step after step, the same people are yelling about the immorality of it. Business interests are one thing and human rights another. I can’t think of a single case in history where a concern for human rights or civil rights has influenced business interests in any serious way and I don’t expect it to happen here.

QUESTION: How can a citizen affect U.S. policy in the Middle East?

CHOMSKY: I think there are alternatives. Despite the fact that the American propaganda system (the press, academic scholarship, etc.) is almost uniformly in favor of the option of military confrontation and occupation, nevertheless public opinion is very strongly in favor of the second option, the two-state political settlement, which is quite remarkable. There have been a couple of polls and they almost invariably show something like a two-to-one support for a Palestinian state despite the fact that almost no one speaks of it. There’s a very sharp split between public opinion and the propaganda establishment.

QUESTION: William Quandt and Joseph Nye are involved in the State Department and they have spoken for a political settlement.

CHOMSKY: Yes, but they don’t reach public opinion. They are marginal figures. As I said before, there’s a split in the government. Though public opinion favors a political settlement, the government’s policy has been to reject that solution. A striking case was the January 1976 UN Security Council resolution which called for a political settlement, recognizing borders and international guarantees of security for all states in the area. It was vetoed by the U.S. alone. Some other countries abstained, but the U.S. vetoed it. So there is quite an unstable situation in the U.S. internally. There are two lines being pushed in the government, a military and a political solution, and the U.S. is internationally isolated in taking the hazardous position it does. So it seems to me to be quite possible to reach public opinion and to affect government policy.

I don’t think you can affect government policy in matters that would really harm the interests of American capitalism, but you can affect government policy in cases where there are alternatives, where it’s more or less a toss-up. It was possible to affect policy on the war in Vietnam, partly because Vietnam was so marginal to the interests of American capitalism. It didn’t look marginal judging by the American commitment to crushing the Vietnamese, but basically whether Vietnam was independent or a colony didn’t seriously affect the interests of American capitalism.

In the Middle East the situation is different. Either of the two options is satisfactory to American interests, it appears, and there is even an argument that could be made for a political accommodation. Under those circumstances, the role of public opinion could be significant. Outside the Jewish community opinion is already strongly in favor of a political settlement, so it would be possible to build up a thing like the peace movement. It would be very hard, because you would be subject to savage attacks, but that is irrelevant, really. I think that as soon as anything large scale gets started, the attacks will cease and a lot of people will join in. Lots of rats will leave the sinking ship as soon as they see it sinking.


1. U.S. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States. 1945, viii, 45, cited in Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The limits of power, Harper & Row, 1972, which provides a comprehensive analysis of the development of U.S. policy at the time.

2. Until 1968, North America led the Middle East in oil production. Cf. John Blair, The control of oil, Pantheon, 1976.

3. Leonard Silk, The New York Times, 7 Oct 1976.

4. Don Oberdorfer, Washington Post, 12 Dec 1976.

5. Robert Lieber, Oil and the Middle East, Harvard, 1976.

6. V. H. Oppenheim, “Why oil prices go UP? The past — We pushed them,” Foreign Policy, Winter, 1976-77.

7. John Saar, Washington Post, April 15, 1976.

8. Emma Rothschild, “Is it time to end food for peace?,” New York Times Magazine, 13 Mar 1977.

9. Dan Smith, “Oil — the growing power of Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Annual Review, 1977.

10. Multinational Oil Corporations and U.S. Foreign Policy, report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, 2 Jan 1975 (henceforth MNOC).

11. Myra Wilkins, “The oil companies in perspective,” Daedalus, Fall, 1975.

12. Blair, op. cit. Blair provides ample evidence of the government concern to secure the profits of the energy corporations. On the international context, see Kolko and Kolko, op. cit. See also Robert Engler, The brotherhood of oil, Chicago, 1977, and many other sources.

13. Jim Hoagland, Washington Post, 19 Feb 1977.

14. See “U.S. trade with the Arab world.” MEMO: Middle East Money, Beirut, 7 Feb 1977.

15. Ibid.

16. U.S. Military Sales to Iran. Staff Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations. U.S. Senate, July 1976.

17. Edward A. Bayne, Four Ways of Politics, American University’s Field Staff, 1965, cited by Robert B. Reppa, Sr., Israel and Iran: Bilateral relationships and effect on the Indian Ocean Basin, Praeger 1974. Reppa was a staff officer in the Defense Intelligence Agency’s national intelligence analysis and estimates office, Middle East branch, from 1961-66.

18. MEMO, op. cit.

19. Reppa, op. cit. He expects the eye of the hurricane to be followed by the ferocity of the second half of the storm.