Specter of an “Ugly Future”

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Yitzhak Laor

Ha’aretz, December 29, 2000

QUESTION: As we speak, the Cable News Network is nattering on in the background for the 36th consecutive day about your presidential elections. It is quite funny, isn’t it?

CHOMSKY: You are right to find it comical, though there are a few serious issues. The most striking fact about the election is that it was a statistical tie. It is highly unlikely that 100 million voters would divide 50-50 if some serious issues were at stake, though that would be the anticipated outcome if, say, people were asked to choose X or Y as president of Mars. About three-quarters of the population regarded the elections as largely a game played by powerful moneyed interests, party bosses and the public relations industry, which molded the candidates to act and speak in ways that would garner votes, so that it was impossible to believe the candidates even when they were intelligible. And that was rare. Most people were unable to determine the stand of the candidates on leading issues, and not for lack of interest or intelligence. More than half the population feels that it has little or no influence on government, surpassing previous peaks by far. This has been increasingly the case since the early Reagan years, and is a natural concomitant of the “neo-liberal policies” that are designed to undermine functioning democracy by shifting decision-making to an unaccountable private power, and to marginalize a good part of the population.

A second important fact is the disenfranchisement of a large part of the Democratic voting bloc by incarceration. This program, too, was initiated 20 years ago along with the “neo-liberal reforms.” President Clinton and Vice President Gore have carried it further, adding about 600,000 new prisoners to the 1.4 million when they took office. Twenty years ago, the United States was similar to other industrial countries in locking up its population. By now, it is completely off the spectrum, and holds a world record (per capita) among countries that have meaningful statistics. The prisoners are disproportionately poor blacks and Hispanics, groups that vote heavily for Democrats. Under the harsh U.S. sentencing laws, not only are prisoners disenfranchised, but in many states (including Florida) so are released prisoners, permanently. The numbers are large. As Human Rights Watch and academic studies have pointed out, Florida and other swing states would have been won easily by Gore, and Congress would have been Democratic for years, if it were not for the disenfranchisement programs. These were pursued vigorously by Clinton and Gore, relying heavily on draconian laws of the Reagan-Bush era and the “war against drugs.”

In these respects, too, the U.S. has departed sharply from the pattern of most other industrial societies in the past 20 years. The discrepancies reflect the more extreme commitment of Washington (and London) to a curious form of “neo-liberal fundamentalism.” One should, incidentally, bear in mind that these policies are neither “new” nor “liberal.” The advocacy of free markets follows the traditional dual pattern: market discipline for the poor and defenseless, while the rich and privilege rely for protection on the nanny state. These are important aspects of the election. The questions that have received such passionate attention – odd-shaped ballots, dimpled chads, and so on – are trivia of no significance.

Given a statistical tie with numerical differences that fall well within the expected 1-2 percent margin of error, the rational procedure would be to select a candidate at random; say, by flipping a coin. That would not do, however. The process must be conducted with appropriate solemnity, and a pretense that issues of grand significance are at stake. Educated elites have devoted great efforts to achieving this result, but with limited success among the general population, it appears.

QUESTION: Your book [Powers and Prospects] describes the background leading up to the Oslo accord, but several years have passed since you gave these lectures. The accord initially raised high hopes here. Then, when the current Intifada broke out, many preferred to become “the distressed left” or even “the offended left,” anything so as not to have to re-think what they had already “agreed upon” in the past. Could you explain the American-Israeli context of the Oslo accord?

CHOMSKY: The Oslo agreements did represent a shift in U.S.-Israeli policy. Both states had by then come to recognize that it is a mistake to use the Israel Defense Forces to run the territories. It is much wiser to resort to the traditional colonial pattern of relying on local clients to control the subject population, in the manner of the British in India, South Africa under apartheid, the U.S. in Central America, and other classic cases. That is the assigned role of the Palestinian Authority, which like its predecessors, has to follow a delicate path: It must maintain some credibility among the population, while serving as a second oppressor, both militarily and economically, in coordination with the primary power centers that retain ultimate control.

The long-term goal of the Oslo process was described accurately by [Foreign Minister] Shlomo Ben-Ami shortly before he joined the Barak government: It is to establish a condition of permanent neo-colonialist dependency. The mechanisms have been spelled out explicitly in the successive interim agreements; and more important, implemented on the ground.

QUESTION: What happened in Camp David this summer?

CHOMSKY: Well, Israel’s final status maps conformed closely to the projects it was implementing in the territories, with U.S. support. The final settlement is to divide the West Bank into four Palestinian enclaves, separated from one another and from the (greatly expanded) Jerusalem region, and also separated from Jordan. The enclaves are enclosed – essentially imprisoned – by Israeli settlements and the supporting infrastructure that integrates them within Israel. The maps indicated that Israel might later on permit some connection between the northern and central enclaves and Jericho, though well to the East. Something similar is apparently planned for Gaza.

QUESTION: Does the United States support the Barak plan?

CHOMSKY: This is the U.S. conception of “peace,” and Washington would be pleased to have it realized. The background assumption, presumably, is that force will ultimately prevail, that there is a limit to what flesh and blood can endure. On this assumption, which is perhaps realistic, there is every reason to keep to the policies recommended in internal cabinet discussions by Moshe Dayan 30 years ago: Israel should make it clear to the Palestinians that “We have no solution, you shall continue to live like dogs, whoever wishes may leave, and we will see where this process leads.” That is entirely in accord with U.S. policies throughout the world and, of course, the U.S. is breaking no new ground in this respect.

QUESTION: How, then, would you describe the American interests in this area, if we shake off the usual nonsense about “peace and democracy,” like the peace and democracy the U.S. is bringing to Columbia?

CHOMSKY: The primary interest, uncontroversially, is effective control of the world’s most important energy reserves. These may be administered by what the British, in their day in the sun, called an “Arab facade” behind which Britain would continue to rule. The facade must be weak and pliant; if the ruling dictatorships challenge the dominant power, they can expect a violent reaction.

QUESTION: Okay, that was true during the Cold War, but that has ended already.

CHOMSKY: For a long time, it was claimed publicly that the U.S. was defending the region from the Russians, though internal documents told a different story. But we no longer need debate the issue, since it has been conceded that the conventional propaganda was false. Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Bush administration informed Congress that the U.S. still required a huge Pentagon budget with intervention forces aimed primarily at the Middle East, where the threat to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door. Or at Iraq’s door; Saddam Hussein was then still an honored friend, having committed only such minor transgressions as murdering hundreds of thousands of Kurds, using chemical weapons, torturing dissidents, and so on. The real threat, the White House explained, was the “technological sophistication” of Third World powers.

QUESTION: In other words, if the United States is not really interested in peace here, because the conflict serves its interests, then the peace camp has no chance, even if it wins an election some day.

CHOMSKY: It would, I think, be hard to do anything in the Middle East that is not at least consistent with perceived U.S. interests. For the past half-century, the U.S. has regarded the Middle East as the most “strategically important area of the world” and the world’s “richest economic prize,” “a stupendous source of strategic power,” and on, and on, in the same vein. The dominant concern has been to maintain effective control over the world’s primary energy reserves, which for the foreseeable future will be in the Gulf region.

Israel and the Palestinians might pursue a separate path if it did not interfere with U.S. interests – and that is, I think, not impossible. My own feeling 30 years ago was that Israel was in a very strong position to move toward some form of federal bi-nationalism in Cis-Jordan, sparing itself and others enormous tragedies. And, though those opportunities have been lost, it is not impossible that they could be recovered. The U.S. might not like it, but would not interfere, I would expect. At the time, Israel preferred a settlement based on force; that was, after all, explicit. That path happened to conform very closely to U.S. policies. If Israelis continue to insist on this framework, they will face, I fear, an ugly future, as will others in the region.

Israelis should have no illusions on this score. If the U.S. decides to abandon support for Israel, as it might, it will not be hampered by the humanistic considerations that are professed or the moral posturing that is adopted when convenient. The famous “Israeli lobby” will be ineffective, and will probably disappear, as it has in the past when Israel confronts U.S. power rather than serving it. That has been the case even under Clinton, the most pro-Israel of U.S. presidents (though George W. Bush may yet surpass him): The recent Phalcon-China affair is a minor illustration.