Rogue States Draw the Usual Line

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Christopher Gunness

Agenda, May, 2001

CHOMSKY: A “rogue state” is a state that defies international laws and conventions, does not consider itself bound by the major treaties and conventions, World Court decisions — in fact, anything except the interests of its own leadership, the forces around the leadership that dominate policy. That would be an extreme case of a “rogue state.” And then there’s variations, of course.

QUESTION: Give me some examples of those variations.

CHOMSKY: Well, you know, there are states that partially reject international law and convention insofar as they can get away with it. In fact, every state is like that. Virtually every state would be. That’s the nature of states. They would be “rogue states” if they could get away with it.

QUESTION: There have always been rogue states. Why has the notion of the rogue state been given so much prominence, do you think, since the end of the Cold War?

CHOMSKY: Well, first of all, remember that I’m using the term in a neutral sense, in terms of its meaning. Almost every term in political discourse has a literal meaning and a propaganda version. And I’m using it in the literal meaning. The propaganda version — which is typically the one that prevails — that’s the version presented by those who have the power to control discourse, propaganda, framework of discussion, and so on. And, in that case, that means primarily the United States. As the United States uses the term “rogue state,” it refers to anyone who’s out of control. So, Cuba’s a “rogue state” because it does not submit to U.S. domination. That’s a different usage entirely. As I use the term “rogue state,” the leading “rogue state” in the world is the United States. That’s the neutral term.

QUESTION: But why do you say that? On what grounds can you argue that the United States is the leading “rogue state”?

CHOMSKY: Well, because it fits the neutral definition that I described very clearly. For example, it’s the only major country — maybe the only country — that has declared that it is not subject to World Court decisions. For example, when it was condemned by the World Court for aggression — the phrase was “unlawful use of force” — against Nicaragua, the U.S. responded by increasing the attack immediately. Democrat-controlled Congress, incidentally. The intellectual classes and the press simply dismissed the World Court as a hostile forum which has discredited itself.

QUESTION: But when one thinks of the phrase “rogue state”, one thinks of a state, for example, like Iraq which has, in the past, gassed its own people. You’re not seriously telling me that you’re putting America in that same category?

CHOMSKY: Well, much worse. First of all, recall that the United States and Britain supported Saddam Hussein when he was doing that. That was not considered a criminal act by the United States and Britain, which continued — he was a friend and ally — and both of them…

QUESTION: But the decision to gas the Kurds…

CHOMSKY: … at the time…

QUESTION: … was not made by Washington or London.

CHOMSKY: No, but it was–

QUESTION: It was [taken?] in Baghdad.

CHOMSKY: It was supported by Washington and London. And he continued to be a friend and ally. And both Washington and London continued to provide him with aid, helped him develop his weapons of mass destruction, and so on. Furthermore, all of that was a horror story — in this case, not perpetrated by Washington and London, only supported by them. Compare it with other things…. It’s now forty years since John F. Kennedy attacked South Vietnam. Of course, in the propaganda system we’re not supposed to say that — but that’s what happened. Forty years ago, Kennedy sent the U.S. Air Force to bomb the South Vietnamese civilians, instituted programs to drive ultimately millions of people into concentration camps or into urban slums, destroyed food supplies because the population was supporting the resistance. And it sort of went on until, at the end, three countries were virtually destroyed and four to five million people were killed. Well, that’s rather significant. Or take, say, Central America during the ’80s. That was a major war [in] which hundreds of thousands of people ended up being killed. It was a U.S. war. Or we can go down to real trivialities, if you like. So, for example, a couple of years ago, Clinton attacked, bombed a poor African country, destroyed about half of its pharmaceutical supplies… If Libya did that to England or the United States, it would be considered rather serious.

QUESTION: But this is all done to promote democracy and freedom — in Vietnam, in South and Latin America, and certainly in Sudan. Do you–?

CHOMSKY: In Sudan, the United States destroyed half the pharmaceutical supplies to protect democracy and freedom? They didn’t even pretend that. In Vietnam, the purpose was to prevent an independent nationalist movement which was out of control.

QUESTION: But the Americans would argue that was part of a very important fight against international terrorism.

CHOMSKY: They never argued any such thing. They didn’t use the term “international terrorism” at the time. That was introduced during the 1980s when it was pretty clear that the Soviet pretext was collapsing and another one had to be found and “international terrorism” was invented as a pretext to replace it. But you’re perfectly correct that the U.S. government and the intellectual classes claimed all sorts of high, lofty aims but that’s constantly true. So did Hitler. So did Stalin.

QUESTION: But are you saying that international terrorism doesn’t exist? It was simply invented by what you would see as a rogue superpower to attack other countries?

CHOMSKY: Well, we know that it was [invented]. The terminology was introduced primarily by the Reagan Administration.

QUESTION: But the thing itself exists, does it not?

CHOMSKY: Oh, the phenomenon exists. So, for example, when the United States bombs Sudan and destroys half its pharmaceutical supply, that’s international terrorism. When the United States bombed Libya, that’s international terrorism. The U.S. war against Nicaragua — if we want to be kind to the United States — we could say it was international terrorism. A stronger, probably more accurate, term would be outright aggression. And we can continue… Let’s take something right now… During the current fighting in the Israeli-occupied territories — as soon as it began last October, Israel immediately — within two days — escalated the fighting — there was no Palestinian firing at the time — escalated the fighting by using attack helicopters to attack civilian targets, killing quite a few people. Immediately, Clinton made a deal to send new military helicopters to Israel — the biggest deal in ten years — and that continues right up till now. Yeah, that’s participation in international terrorism. Remember, the territory’s under military occupation.

QUESTION: Okay, would you concede that the U.S. can be a force for good — championing the cause of democracy and freedom?

CHOMSKY: Can it? Yeah, I hope it would be. In fact, I spend a lot of my time–

QUESTION: Has it ever though? Has it ever?

CHOMSKY: Has it ever? Well, has any country ever? I mean, by accident… You know, states are not moral agents. They act in their own interests. And that means the interests of powerful forces within them. Now, sometimes… The people of countries are moral agents. They may compel their states to act in ways that are humane and decent. And that’s happened sometimes. But, over time, it’s, you know, just not the way history works. I mean, of course, that’s the way apologists for state power describe things — but, you know, we should be serious about it.

QUESTION: Okay, so what’s your prescription? If you have a case, say, take North Korea where the government there pays little attention to the suffering of its own people. Similar case in Burma. What should be done about those “rogue states”?

CHOMSKY: Well, we should first of all look a little bit into the backgrounds. So, for example, the military dictatorship in Burma — which is undoubtedly a monstrosity — it came to replace the parliamentary government after U.S. operations in 1958, which established a military presence of Chinese nationalists in northern Burma to attack China. And that led to conflict within Burma which led to military overthrow of the government. So there’s an interesting history there.

QUESTION: Should it –?

CHOMSKY: But what should the United States do about Burma and North Korea? Well, it should try to… For example, let’s take North Korea. What it should do is support the measures — actually Clinton had a rather decent policy there, one of his rare exceptions — it should pursue diplomatic and other measures, first of all, to try to alleviate the suffering of people there and also to relax the tensions. So, for example, when the South Korean government — [South Korean President] Kim Dae-Jung — takes steps towards lessening tensions with North Korea and moving towards some kind of more peaceful relation between the two halves of Korea and more integration, well, the U.S. ought to support that. Instead, the Bush Administration, censured him sharply and tried to call it off…

QUESTION: In [“A New Generation Draws the Line”], you attack the NATO intervention in Kosovo which the West said was justified on humanitarian grounds to protect ethnic Albanians from Serb forces. Why did you oppose it? Why do you oppose this?

CHOMSKY: Well, for one thing… It’s interesting that that’s the interpretation of the book and also another book I wrote on the topic [The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo], neither of which attacks — neither this one nor the other one is an attack on the NATO bombing of Serbia. It discusses it. But that’s not the issue. What’s discussed in both books — and it’s intriguing that it cannot be understood in the West, though it’s easily understood elsewhere — the topic of both books, including that one, very explicitly, unmistakably, unambiguously, is what’s stated in the title: “A New Generation Draws the Line.” That’s a quote from [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair who was one of many who was announcing a grand new era in human affairs, like nothing that ever happened in the past, in which the enlightened states, as they call themselves, would pursue principles and values for the first time in history and bring about a grand era of defense of human rights and freedom. That’s what the book’s about. The book is about whether that is true.

QUESTION: Are you saying that it’s not true? That a line was not drawn?

CHOMSKY: Oh, a line was– Oh, sure. I mean, the usual line was drawn.

QUESTION: What do you mean by the usual line?

CHOMSKY: The usual line is: if a country is out of control and we don’t like it, we’ll do something to bring it under control. And we will do exactly what Britain and the United States said they were trying to do: we will ensure the establishment of “credibility.” If you want to understand exactly how committed they were to the Kosovars, there’s two things you do. First of all, you look at the extensive documentation available — by now, it’s very rich — from Western sources — State Department, NATO and others — as to what was going on in Kosovo up to the bombing. We have rich documentation about that. And this book reviews it. In fact, as far as I know, it’s the only source that reviews it. It asks what was going on, what was the expectation when the bombing began, and you discover from that that there is just no possibility that this was undertaken for humanitarian ends…


CHOMSKY: … that’s not …

QUESTION: But the evidence at the time seemed to be that there was an overwhelming humanitarian case — indeed, that genocide seemed to be being committed against the Albanians.

CHOMSKY: Interesting that it was called “genocide” — there was never anything even moderately approaching genocide. But the atrocities picked up very sharply after the monitors were withdrawn, under Serbian objections, and the bombing began. That’s when the atrocities took place and, in fact, they were anticipated.

QUESTION: So, what–?

CHOMSKY: I mean, but, but– Excuse me. Let me just continue. So, one way of determining whether there were humanitarian aims is to look at the actual data which, from Western sources, most of it trying to justify the bombing. Well, that’s done in the book and I think it undermines that claim completely. But there’s another way. You can follow, say, Alexander Solzhinitsyn’s observation. He said if the West is really concerned with alleviating suffering, why don’t they do something about the miserable Kurds? Well, the fact is, they were doing something about the miserable Kurds right at that time. Namely, the U.S. was providing a huge flow of arms to Turkey, peaking in 1997, to implement one of the worst cases of ethnic cleansing and atrocities of the ’90s [the slaughter of tens of thousands of Kurds]. And that happens to be within NATO. Well, that tells you where they’re drawing the line.

QUESTION: Tell me, as far as Kosovo’s concerned, what did America have to gain? What U.S. national interest is served by the bombing, in your view?

CHOMSKY: Exactly what they said. I mean, the official goals are discussed in this book. I just repeat the official goals. The official goals were three. One was to stop ethnic cleansing. Okay, we know that wasn’t the goal. For one reason, because they said — the National Security Advisor said — it wouldn’t be sufficient and, for another, because the ethnic cleansing started after the bombing. So that wasn’t the goal. The other two that were mentioned were quite reasonable, however. The major goals — and this is repeated throughout, by Britain as well — are to ensure the “credibility of NATO” and to guarantee the stability of the Balkans. Now, all we have to do is explain those words. What does “credibility of NATO” mean? Well, it doesn’t mean “credibility of Belgium” — it means “credibility of the United States.” Now, what does “credibility of the United States” mean? Well, ask any Mafia don. He’ll explain. “Credibility” means you better do what we say — or else. The same claim — establishing credibility — has been made, plausibly, over and over again, in cases where there was no local [or] national interest. What does “stability” mean? Well, we have a rich documentary record. I reviewed it in the book, in fact, as to what “stability” means. What it means is — it doesn’t mean that, you know, things are quiet — it means they are quiet in the terms that we demand. In fact, I actually quote foreign policy analysts, high-level ones, who say that we had to “destabilize” Chile to ensure “stability.” And that’s exactly correct, in the Orwellian sense. We had to undermine the democratic government to ensure U.S. domination, which is what’s called “stability.” And those goals, which were repeated over and over — and I’m just quoting the U.S. government and the British government — yeah, those goals are perfectly understandable.

QUESTION: But isn’t that how the international system works? Powerful countries will try to shore up their “credibility” to maintain their long-term interests.

CHOMSKY: Exactly. That’s just what I was saying all along. And the task of intellectuals is to disguise that, in terms of lofty rhetoric and aims.

QUESTION: Let’s, if I may, ask you about President Bush and his Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Will they be more or less interventionist, do you think, than the Clinton Administration?

CHOMSKY: It’s very hard to say. I mean, they’re somewhat different. First of all, they follow pretty much the same plans. There are some differences. The Bush Administration has moved, in terms of intervention, it’s moved more towards trying to extend military domination and the arms race into new domains. So, one of it’s main projects is to militarize space. The U.S., of course, has a considerable technological advantage in that. But, of course, others are going to follow. The missile defense program is part of a much broader program — it’s called “[Joint] Vision 2020” or something like that — which is to gain what they call “full spectrum dominance,” that is, ensuring military domination of space to allow U.S. forces to project power in any area of the world — to, you know, secure what they call U.S. interests, which are global. That is going to almost certainly — I mean, their own intelligence services are telling them that and any analyst can understand it — that’s going to lead others to find modes of deterrence. It will lead them to develop their own techniques of deterrence. Other countries are not going to sit there and just let this happen. Naturally, there’ll be a reaction.

QUESTION: But the Bush Administration argues that missile defense is just that: a defensive shield. Why should one suppose it will necessarily lead to an arms race, as you say?

CHOMSKY: Necessary? Nothing is necessary in world affairs but certain things are obvious. That’s why U.S. intelligence services and virtually all strategic analysts are pointing out that everyone else, of course, will regard this so-called “missile defense” and militarization of space exactly the way we would regard it if, say, China was doing it. If China was doing it, we’d naturally and correctly regard it as, in effect, a first-strike weapon, that is, a device which will allow them to project power and ensure themselves against retaliation. Those are the terms that are used by the United States. That’s the way we’d understand it anywhere else, and that’s the way everyone else is gonna understand it this [?]. Or we could go right next door to Canada where Canadian military authorities have informed their own government — in documents that were leaked, incidentally, [from] Canada — that they do not regard the National Missile Defense as a defensive effort, that they regard it exactly like everyone else does, as a way to ensure that the United States will be able to project power. The militarization of space is quite openly that — there’s not even a pretense of defense.

QUESTION: Now, you’ve written about the new post-Communist world order. What, as far as you’re concerned, is it?

CHOMSKY: It’s a system in which tactical changes were made. I mean, the basic strategic positions haven’t changed because if you look over the history of the Cold War, both sides — both the Russians and the Americans — claim that everything they were doing was in defense against the other. But we have to be serious and ask whether that’s true. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, were they defending themselves from the United States? Well, we dismiss that with ridicule. When the United States attacked Nicaragua or Vietnam, was it defending itself against the Russians? That’s even more ridiculous. The fact is that if you look at the events of the Cold War — and in the United States, you can look at internal documents, it’s a pretty free country in that respect — you find that the Cold War was always in the background, of course, but the goals were quite different. Take Cuba, which has been a target of U.S. attack for forty years. Well, we now have the internal declassified record of the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administration thinking about Cuba. And we know what they had in mind when they — Kennedy — invaded Cuba, they imposed the blockade, and so on. But they told us in the internal records, talking to each other. Kennedy’s Latin American commission, headed by Arthur Schlesinger, informed him that the Cuban threat is, in their words, the threat of “the Castro idea of taking matters into your own hands” which may influence other people — other groups in Latin America who face similar situations of oppression and denial of rights — they may also want to take their matters into their own hands. The Russians are mentioned, but they’re mentioned in the following fashion: the problem with the Russians is that they are offering development aid and presenting themselves as as model for economic growth in a single generation. That’s the internal thinking — and it goes case after case. Now, those things are stable after the Cold War because they had nothing to do with the Cold War.

QUESTION: Tell me, what sort of limits and how should limits be put on American power in this world order?

CHOMSKY: The limits on American power will primarily be put from inside the United States — it’s the only way — and…

QUESTION: How will that happen? What do you mean by that?

CHOMSKY: What do I mean? I mean the population of the United States ought to prevent these things from happening. So, for example, if the population of the United States were aware of the programs of Clinton’s Strategic Command which, actually, I review in these books, or of the proposals for militarization of space, they would not like it and I think they would act to stop it. That’s why there’s no discussion of it.

QUESTION: Do you really think the American people care about the peaceful use of outer space and far-flung parts of the world?

CHOMSKY: Oh, absolutely. In fact, if you take a look at polls — which are very careful in the United States — the public is in favor of direct involvement with multilateral agreements to lead to a more peaceful world, and so on. You know, people aren’t crazy. They don’t want their children to be murdered. And that’s exactly why these things are not discussed. And it’s not only in this case but it’s in many cases. Furthermore, other areas of the world, they’re going to react. China and Russia and India are going to react. The European Union, sooner or later, will move on its own — to some extent — independent course. Furthermore, other countries are likely to regard themselves as potential targets of U.S. attack, are very likely to try to find some way to deter it. And the way they’ll use is not nuclear weapons and missiles — nobody’s crazy enough to believe that — what they’ll do is try to develop other forms, other kinds, of weapons of mass destruction. I should mention these are not my opinions. They’re standard. So, for example — Graham Allison who’s the head of the Harvard Kennedy School [of Government] programs on these things and a long-standing strategic analyst — he’s pointed out that if any country wanted to explode a nuclear weapon in the United States, the easiest way to do it would be to wrap it in a bale of marijuana and send it into New York City. That’s exactly right. No country is going to be insane enough to launch a missile attack against the United States knowing that it’s going to be instantly destroyed. They’ll use other means which are readily available.

QUESTION: Finally, you’ve been very critical of the United States for decades — everything it does, certainly in foreign policy, you seem to think is wrong. Do you actually like America? Or, I mean, are there aspects of the country that you appreciate and admire?

CHOMSKY: And I say it all the time. It’s the most free country in the world. It’s probably the most democratic country in the world. I just mentioned a few moments ago that it’s one of the very few countries where it’s free enough to gain access to internal records. These are all wonderful things. And furthermore, there’s good reason why I’m talking about the United States, two reasons. One reason is, it’s the most powerful country in the world, therefore it’s the most important country to talk about. Second is, I happen to be here. There’s an elementary moral truism — so elementary, it’s embarrassing to repeat it — you’re primarily responsible for the consequences of your own actions. It’s fine if you want to criticize someone else, okay? It has no moral quality. You’re responsible for what you do. And in a country that’s relatively free the actions of that country are your responsibility. So, naturally, I concentrate on it.