Effects of U.S. policy in the Middle East

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Greg Ruggiero

Indymedia, October 5, 2001

QUESTION: In order to shape an international alliance, the U.S. has suddenly shifted positions with a number of countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, offering a variety of political, military and monetary packages in exchange for forms of support. How might these sudden moves be affecting the political dynamics in those regions?

CHOMSKY: Washington is stepping very delicately. We have to remember what is at stake: the world’s major energy reserves, primarily in Saudi Arabia but throughout the Gulf region, along with not-inconsiderable resources in Central Asia. Though a minor factor, Afghanistan has been discussed for years as a possible site for pipelines that will aid the U.S. in the complex maneuvering over control of Central Asian resources. North of Afghanistan, the states are fragile and violent. Uzbekistan is the most important. It has been condemned by Human Rights Watch for serious atrocities, and is fighting its own internal Islamic insurgency. Tajikistan is similar, and is also a major drug trafficking outlet to Europe, primarily in connection with the Northern Alliance, which controls most of the Afghan-Tajikistan border and has been the major source of drugs since the Taliban virtually eliminated poppy production. Flight of Afghans to the north could lead to all sorts of internal problems. Pakistan, which has been the main supporter of the Taliban, has a strong internal radical Islamic movement. Its reaction is unpredictable, and potentially dangerous, if Pakistan is visibly used as a base for U.S. operations in Afghanistan; and there is much well-advised concern over the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. The Pakistani military, while eager to obtain military aid from the U.S. (already promised), is wary, because of stormy past relations, and is also concerned over a potentially hostile Afghanistan allied with its enemy to the East, India. They are not pleased that the Northern Alliance is led by Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other Afghan minorities hostile to Pakistan and supported by India, Iran and Russia, now the U.S. as well.

In the Gulf region, even wealthy and secular elements are bitter about U.S. policies and quietly often express support for bin Laden, whom they detest, as “the conscience of Islam” (New York Times, October 5, quoting an international lawyer for multinationals, trained in the U.S.). Quietly, because these are highly repressive states; one factor in the general bitterness towards the U.S. is its support for these regimes. Internal conflict could easily spread, with consequences that could be enormous, especially if U.S. control over the huge resources of the region is threatened. Similar problems extend to North Afica and Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia.

Even apart from internal conflict, an increased flow of armaments to the countries of the region increases the likelihood of armed conflict and the flow of weapons to terrorist organizations and narcotraffickers. The governments are eager to join the U.S. “war against terrorism” to gain support for their own state terrorism, often on a shocking scale (Russia and Turkey, to mention only the most obvious examples, though Turkey has always benefited from crucial U.S. involvement).

QUESTION: Pakistan and India, border countries armed with nuclear weapons, have been eye to eye in serious conflict for years. How might the sudden and intense pressure that the U.S. is exerting in the region impact their already volatile relationship?

CHOMSKY: The main source of conflict is Kashmir, where India claims to be fighting Islamic terrorism, and Pakistan claims that India is refusing self-determination and has carried out large-scale terrorism itself. All the claims, unfortunately, are basically correct. There have been several wars over Kashmir, the latest one in 1999, when both states had nuclear weapons available; fortunately they were kept under control, but that can hardly be guaranteed. The threat of nuclear war is likely to increase if the U.S. persists in its militarization of space programs (euphemistically described as “missile defense”). These already include support for expansion of China’s nuclear forces, in order to gain Chinese acquiescence to the programs. India will presumably try to match China’s expansion, then Pakistan, then beyond, including Israel. Its nuclear capacities were described by the former head of the U.S. Strategic Command as “dangerous in the extreme,” and one of the prime threats in the region. “Volatile” is right, maybe worse.

QUESTION: Prior to 9-11, the Bush administration was being fiercely critiqued, ally nations included, for its political “unilateralism” — refusal to sign on to the Kyoto protocol for greenhouse emissions, intention to violate the ABM treaty in order to militarize space with a “missile defense” program, walkout of the racism conference in Durban, South Africa, to name only a few recent examples. Might the sudden U.S. alliance-building effort spawn a new “multi-lateralism” in which unexpected positive developments — like progress for Palestinians — might advance?

CHOMSKY: It’s worth recalling that Bush’s “unilateralism” was an extension of standard practice. In 1993, Clinton informed the UN that the U.S. will — before — act “multilaterally when possible but unilaterally when necessary,” and proceeded to do so. The position was reiterated by UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright and in 1999 by Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who declared that the U.S. is committed to “unilateral use of military power” to defend vital interests, which include “ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources,” and indeed anything that Washington might determine to be within its “domestic jurisdiction.”

The last phrase is important: it refers to the exception the U.S. granted itself from World Court decisions, employed when it rejected the Court’s order to terminate its terrorist attack against Nicaragua. But it is true that Bush went beyond, causing considerable anxiety among allies. The current need to form a coalition may attenuate the rhetoric, but is unlikely to change the policies.

Members of the coalition are expected to be silent and obedient supporters, not participants. The U.S. explicitly reserves to itself the right to act as it chooses, and is carefully avoiding any meaningful recourse to international institutions, as required by law. The Palestinians are unlikely to gain anything. On the contrary, the terrorist attack of September 11 was a crushing blow to them, as they and Israel recognized immediately.

QUESTION: Since 9-11, Secretary of State Colin Powell has been signalling that the U.S. may adopt a new stance toward the plight of Palestinians. What is your reading?

CHOMSKY: My reading is exactly that of the officials and other sources quoted towards the end of the front-page story of the New York Times. As they made clear, Bush-Powell do not even go as far as Clinton’s Camp David proposals, lauded in the mainstream here but completely unacceptable, for reasons discussed accurately in Israel and elsewhere, and as anyone could see by looking at a map — one reason, I suppose, why maps were so hard to find here, though not elsewhere, including Israel. One can find more detail about this in articles at the time of Camp David, including my own, and essays in the collection edited by Roane Carey The New Intifada.

QUESTION: The free flow of information is one of the first casualties of any war. Is the present situation in any way an exception? Examples?

CHOMSKY: Impediments to free flow of information in countries like the U.S. are rarely traceable to government; rather, to self-censorship of the familiar kind. The current situation is not exceptional — considerably better than the norm, in my opinion.

There are, however, some startling examples of U.S. government efforts to restrict free flow of information abroad. The Arab world has had one free and open news source, the satellite TV news channel Al-Jazeera in Qatar, modelled on BBC, with an enormous audience throughout the Arab-speaking world. It is the sole uncensored source, carrying a great deal of important news and also live debates and a wide range of opinion — broad enough to include Colin Powell a week ago and Israeli Prime Minister Barak (me too, just to declare an interest). Al-Jazeera is also “the only international news organization to maintain reporters in the Taliban-controlled part of Afghanistan” (Wall Street Journal). Among other examples, it was responsible for the exclusive filming of the destruction of Buddhist statues that rightly infuriated the world. It has also provided lengthy interviews with bin Laden that I’m sure are perused closely by Western intelligence agencies and are invaluable to others who want to understand what he is thinking. These are translated and rebroadcast by BBC, several of them since 9-11.

Al-Jazeera is, naturally, despised and feared by the dictatorships of the region, particularly because of its frank exposures of their human rights records. The U.S. has joined their ranks. BBC reports that “The U.S. is not the first to feel aggrieved by al-Jazeera coverage, which has in the past provoked anger from Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt for giving airtime to political dissidents.”

The Emir of Qatar confirmed that “Washington has asked Qatar to rein in the influential and editorially independent Arabic al-Jazeera television station,” BBC reported. The Emir, who also chairs the Organization of Islamic Conference that includes 56 countries, informed the press in Washington that Secretary of State Powell had pressured him to rein in Al-Jazeera: to “persuade Al-Jazeera to tone down its coverage,” Al-Jazeera reports. Asked about the reports of censorship, the Emir said: “This is true. We heard from the U.S. administration, and also from the previous U.S. administration” (BBC, October 4, 2001, citing Reuters).

The only serious report I noticed of this highly important news is in the Wall Street Journal (October 5), which also describes the reaction of intellectuals and scholars throughout the Arab world (“truly appalling,” etc.). The report adds, as the Journal has done before, that “many Arab analysts argued that it is, after all, Washington’s perceived disregard for human rights in officially pro-American countries such as Saudi Arabia that fuels the rampant anti-Americanism.” There has also been remarkably little use of the bin Laden interviews and other material from Afghanistan available from Al-Jazeera.

So yes, there are barriers to free flow of information, but they cannot be blamed on government censorship or pressure, a very marginal factor in the United States.