On the “New World Order” and the Origins of His Scepticism

Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamian

Our Generation, Volume 22, No. 1 & 2, September 17, 1990

A world renowned linguist and outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy and the mass media, Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor of the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT; recipient of honorary degrees from several universities; Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Science. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any living scholar between 1980 and 1992.

These questions and answers are taken from a series of four interviews conducted during 1990. The following sequence comes from a meeting in Boulder, Colorado, on September 17 of last year.

Question: You take exception to, and I think you challenge the conventional mainstream media view, that the Kuwait-Iraq crisis is the first major event of the so-called “post-Cold War era.” Am I correct in that?

That is right in a number of respects. First of all, I am rather sceptical about the phrase “post-Cold War era,” but even accepting that, the first major crisis involving military action in this era was the invasion of Panama. It was “post-Cold War” in the sense that — although the action itself was so normal as to be hardly more than a footnote to history — it is the first time in a long, long time, actually since 1917, that U.S. military actions, an aggression in this case, have not been justified on the pretext of defence against the Soviet threat. The pretext was never at all credible, but this time it was quite beyond anyone’s imagination to construct. In that respect this was a “post-Cold War” invasion, use of military force. It had to be justified on different pretexts. In many respects it is rather similar to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Question:Do you see any positive results evolving from the fairly united international effort to force Saddam Hussein to evacuate from Kuwait?

I wish that I did see some, but I do not. I happen to agree with those international efforts, but the only reason they are taking place is because the United States is allowing them to take place. There is a lot of nonsense being produced now about how the United Nations is finally living up to its responsibilities in the post-Cold War era. With superpower conflict ending we don’t have to worry any more about Russian recalcitrance and we can put aside the psychic disorders of the Third World, etc. and now the U.N. can finally do what it was designed to do.

The fact of the matter is that for the past twenty years the major reason why the United Nations has not been able to do what is was designed to do is because the United States blocked it. The United States is far in the lead in vetoing Security Council resolutions and in voting often in isolation or virtual isolation on General Assembly resolutions on a wide range of issues, including the Middle East, aggression, observance of international law, disarmament, environmental issues, you name it. That is why the U.N. was unable to act. But now the U.N. is more or less — actually less than we claim — acting in accordance with U.S. demands, so therefore it is able to act.

The cynicism on this matter is mind-boggling. For example, on Sunday, September 16, the New York Times Magazine had a story about Daniel Moynihan, praising him as the great exponent of observance of international law who has finally come into his own now that others have come around to understand the principles for which he has fought so hard all his life. I have seen about a dozen articles like that about Moynihan, who just came out with a book on international law. It is perfectly true that in this book on international law Moynihan says it is a terrible thing we have not observed international law, we should do it, etc. But there are a few slight omissions in this story.

For example, the article in the New York Times Magazine praises Moynihan for his service at the United Nations, but they did not say what he was doing there. What he was doing was ensuring that the U.N. couldn’t function, and he describes that with great pride in his memoirs. Referring to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, he says that the United States wanted things to turn out as they did and that he had the assignment of making sure that the United Nations could not act in any constructive way to terminate or reverse the Indonesian aggression. He carried out that task with remarkable success. He then in the next sentence goes on to say that he is aware of the nature of that success. He says that two months later, reports surfaced that the Indonesian invasion had killed off about 10% of the population in East Timor in two months. A proportion of the population which, he then goes on to say, is about the same as the proportion of people in Eastern Europe killed by Hitler.

So he is taking pride in having stopped the United Nations from interfering with an aggression that he himself compares with Hitler’s invasion of Eastern Europe, and then he drops it at that. This is the man who is telling us to observe international law and praising the United Nations for finally coming around to recognize its duty and to live up to its historic mission. Putting aside his own stance, the stance of the interview with him and the praise for his book, the front-cover story in the Times Book Review and other articles citing him as an exponent, an apostle of international law at the United Nations — that presses cynicism beyond its outer limits.

Question:It would seem that the Gulf crisis would generate much interest in energy conservation — the institution of serious energy conservation measures in this country, developing alternative sources — but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Not really, because it is not really very relevant. The issue in the Gulf crisis is not a shortage of oil and it is not U.S. dependence on Middle East oil. The U.S. position toward the Middle East has been, since the 1940s, that those energy reserves, by far the largest and the cheapest energy reserves in the world, would be dominated by the United States and its clients. Surely no armed forced would be tolerated, had that been a realistic possibility, and it wasn’t after the British and French had been more or less expelled. There was a lot of talk about the Russians, but it was just talk. Crucially, no independent indigenous force would be tolerated. That was U.S. policy in the 1950s. It motivated the U.S. opposition to Nasser by the mid-1950s, once it was recognized that he was an independent nationalist and wouldn’t just play our game. It motivated the strategic alliance with Israel and with the Shah in opposition to what is called “radical nationalism,” meaning independent nationalism, and on to the present.

Why is that relevant? Until the early 1970s we barely imported any Middle East oil, but we had exactly the same position. In fact, if we did not use one drop of Middle East oil today, we would have exactly the same position. The issue is who controls the world’s major energy supplies, and it is understood that whoever controls those, whoever can administer production levels and prices, within narrow limits, because there is not much of a range, has a very powerful lever over world affairs and over other countries, and we are going to make sure we have that. We could be completely self-sufficient and it would not change this a bit.

Question:I am wondering if you could comment about media images. I am thinking about the late 1970s with those horrific pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini gracing the covers of Time and Newsweek and eleven years later the same issues of hostages, the Middle East and oil and the Butcher of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein, on the same covers, snarling and sneering at readers.

In the 1960s it was Gamal Abdel Nasser who was the monster who had to be destroyed. This was part of the reason for the extreme enthusiasm about Israel’s 1967 victory and U.S. participation in it. In fact, in the case of Saddam Hussein, we do not have to go back that far. On August 1, 1990 he was a favoured U.S. client. The United States was offering him credit, lavishing support on him. The U.S. was his major trading partner. We were the largest market for his oil. We were providing 40% of his food. The Iraqi-American business forum was praising his progress toward democracy. He was just a good guy.

A day later he was the new incarnation of Genghis Khan and Hitler. No new crimes. True, the aggression in Kuwait was one new crime, but small in comparison with the record that he had already compiled. What happened was, he conflicted with U.S. interests. Period. He could invade Iran, murder thousands of Kurds with poison gas, set up one of the most brutal tyrannies in the world, if not the most — that was all just fine as long as he was seen as conforming to U.S. interests. When it became clear that he was another one of these radical nationalists who was going to go his own way, he was given the mantle of Nasser, Qaddafi, and Khomeini and anybody else who gets in our way.

Question:I am interested in this issue of cognitive dissonance and I know that you have talked about this. How can someone like Bush, for example, or his Secretary of State Baker or the earlier cited Daniel Moynihan, how can they be talking about international law and violating the rights of sovereignty of nations as a grave crime, etc.? How do they reconcile that with Panama, for example, or Grenada?

The World Court proceedings condemned the United States for the unlawful use of force and a whole record of it all the way back. Just take Panama. In contrast, on Sunday, September 16, 1990 the press announced with great pleasure that the Security Council had voted a severe condemnation of Iraq for its break-ins at foreign embassies. That is quite right. When they broke in, the press was just outraged. This was an attack on diplomacy itself, the New York Times said, and for the first time demanded that he be tried as a war criminal. The U.N. resolution was published in full and with great prominence.

I have not seen anyone point out the obvious. That is the second time that has happened this year. In mid-January the United Nations Security Council voted a resolution condemning a country for violating diplomatic immunity in a case very similar to this one. U.S. troops broke into the Nicaraguan compound in Panama and messed it up. The Security Council had a resolution which was vetoed by the United States. That was it. There was also a Security Council resolution condemning the invasion vetoed by the United States. There was a General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion. In fact, more recently, the Catholic Church in Panama described the U.S. invasion as the worst tragedy in the history of the country, and a government commission has also condemned the invasion. Going back in the United Nations, as I mentioned before, the United States is very far in the lead in preventing it from acting on issues of observance of international law, aggression, etc.

To get back to your question: how can they do these things? It depends on the individual, but there are several possible answers. One possible answer: Some may simply be total cynics. Most likely they are people who have acquired or had naturally a certain technique which is almost a filter that you have to pass through in order to get to a leadership position. That is that you be capable of erasing totally from your mind anything that conflicts with your need to serve powerful interests. You have got to be able to erase it, and then you don’t have cognitive dissonance.

Question:But the level of conformity is startling, even by U.S. standards, on this issue. I kept waiting at the daily press conference that Bush held in Maine and now in Washington for one single reporter to get up, even if he didn’t believe in what he was saying, and just challenging the Administration line on this issue about international law and the sanctity of borders, etc., bringing up the issue of Panama. Not one of them, not one, came forward.

No, and what’s more I have yet to see an op-ed or an editorial running through the record on this and pointing out the utter hypocrisy of it. Incidentally, I know that such op-eds have been submitted to major newspapers, but they have been turned down.

Question:Some years ago you said that anti-Arab sentiment is the last vestige of respectable racism in the United States today. Do you see any elements of that racism in this current crisis?

I think it is just flagrant. The reaction is utterly racist. Of course you find this in outright racist journals like the New Republic, which is reeking with anti-Arab racism, but that is always the case. But even in parts of the media that try to retain a level of minimal respectability on this, the anti-Arab racism just screams at you. This has been true for a long time, but it is quite apparent now.

Question:I happened to be listening to a Christian religious broadcast, and there were comments about “Islam breeds violence” and “The Koran sanctifies terrorism and holy wars,” it was rather astounding to hear all this stuff.

That is typical of a racist culture. Christianity doesn’t breed violence? Is the history of Europe very pretty?

Question:Where is Israel, the strategic asset, in this crisis? Why is it seemingly on the sidelines?

Seemingly is the right word. It remains a base for U.S. power. If the United States decides to go to war, as it very well may, plunging the area into total chaos and possibly catastrophe, Israel will be a major part of that. But right now, the United States would much prefer for Israel to keep a low profile and they have surely been ordered to do that. The reason is that the very fragile pretense of an Arab force is crucial for propaganda purposes, and that would collapse instantaneously if Israel were to take an active part. In fact, probably the whole Arab world would be inflamed. The United States would probably find itself involved in counterinsurgency.

Question:I am interested that you use the term “Arab world,” because it has mystified me. You do not hear about the “Slavic world” or the “Hindu world” or the “Buddhist world.”

Or the “Christian world.”

Question:Is this part of that racist framework? And we use it.

Sure, we use it. I use it. The so called “Arab world” is as complex and diverse as the European world.

Question:What about the internal feuds within the region? Some people are rather surprised to find, for example, someone like Hafez al Assad winding up against Saddam Hussein.

Assad has been a sworn enemy of Hussein for a long time. They represent two wings of essentially the same secular nationalist — actually internationalist — Arab movement, the Baath party, but different wings, and they have been at each other’s throat for years. Assad was the only major Arab state to support Iran during the Iraq-Iran war. So it is just a continuation of it. It is interesting that all of a sudden Assad has become a good guy in America. This morning there is an article in the New York Times saying that of course, he is not very nice, but much better than Saddam Hussein. Two months ago, Saddam Hussein was much better than he was. In fact, they are pretty much on a par, but he is on our side, so therefore he has got real promise.

Question:Hasn’t Bush and his Administration really painted itself into a corner in comments like “Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait will not stand, it will not be tolerated”? Is he giving Saddam Hussein any avenue to compromise?

I think in my view that is a rather odd way to put it, because there have been several offers from Iraq on a negotiating track that could be followed to end the conflict with Iraqi withdrawal, and they have been turned down by the United States. So it is not a matter of the United States offering a possible compromise. As it is right now, it is a matter of the United States refusing to permit a diplomatic track to be pursued. There was a rather remarkable front-page article in the New York Times by their chief diplomatic correspondent, Thomas Friedman, a couple of weeks ago, August 22, saying that there is a great concern in Washington, which he supported, that others might find the diplomatic track too tempting.

On this issue, I think you can see a real difference between the United States and most of the rest of the world — not all, Kuwaiti nationals and Israel agree with the United States, and some others do — but most of the world is tending in a different direction. That is over what is the crucial issue right now. There is a general hope that economic measures of some kind, some form of embargo, will succeed in compelling Iraq to withdraw and reverse the aggression, but suppose they do not? Then what?

There are then two ways to achieve that end. One way is war and the other is diplomacy. The way I read the international situation, most of the world prefers diplomacy, and the United States is gearing up for war. There apparently are diplomatic options and a diplomatic track. We cannot be sure of that, since every such opportunity has instantaneously been shut off and in fact barely reported, but there certainly have been proposals floated that look like possible diplomatic options.

Question:Wasn’t there an Iraqi offer to talk about withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands?

That was on August 12. That was the first of them. Exactly how serious it was we don’t know, because it was instantly rejected. There were several others, too. There was an Iraqi proposal on August 19 to treat the Kuwait affair as a problem of the Arab world and the Arab League and have it settled in the same manner as Syrian forces in Lebanon and Moroccan forces in the Western Sahara. That was rejected out of hand as well. There was an argument for rejecting it, namely that in that arena Saddam Hussein could expect to be highly influential, in fact perhaps to prevail. That has some logic to it, except for one small point. He was simply stealing a leaf from the U.S. book. Every time the United States intervenes in the Western Hemisphere, it immediately stands up and denounces the rest of the world for trying to get involved. So it will veto Security Council resolutions calling for an end to hostilities on the grounds that this is a Western Hemisphere affair and we can do it ourselves. You guys keep away. Why? Because we can hope to prevail as long as it is just Western Hemisphere. We have done the same in the Middle East, for example, trying to bar U.N. intervention in Cyprus when Turkey invaded Cyprus, in fact earlier, back in the early 1960s, keeping it a NATO issue.

However, a third and more important proposal from Iraq was on August 23, and again, we do not know much about it or how serious it was because it was more or less suppressed. But on August 23 a proposal was brought to Washington by a former high U.S. official with Iraqi connections calling for — and this had terms that were quite forthcoming — an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, an end to sanctions, freeing of anyone who was detained, the hostages, no precondition that the U.S. troops withdraw or any other precondition. The only terms that Iraq insisted on in this proposal were (1) some form of guaranteed access to the Gulf, and (2) control of the Rumailah oil fields, which are about 95% inside Iraq and 5% inside Kuwait on what has always been a contested border.

That proposal was described by a White House spokesman, who was quoted in the press, as “serious and negotiable.” It certainly sounds that. How serious and how negotiable it is we do not know because it was instantaneously rejected by the United States and largely suppressed by the press. The offer had apparently been leaked to the New York Times, which did not publish it. It was then very prominently published a week later by Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, and at that point the Times had to refer to it, but it buried the thing and dismissed it as baloney in a paragraph. It has not been referred to since.

There are other proposals. There are several proposals attributed to the PLO in Jordan calling for Iraqi withdrawal and a plebescite and other possibilities. How realistic they are, again, we do not know because as long the United States rejects them, and as long as the media do not report them, we do not know. But the logic of the situation is pretty clear. If the embargo does not succeed in a limited time, then the options will be war or diplomacy. If diplomacy is cut off, it will be war.