On Afghanistan

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Tim Sebastian

Hard Talk, February 2, 2002

QUESTION: Why do you believe it was unlawful for the United States to fight back against a foreign attacker?

CHOMSKY: It wouldn’t’ve been unlawful to fight against a foreign attacker but it is unlawful to carry out revenge actions.

QUESTION: They did fight back, though. They went after al Qaeda, didn’t they?

CHOMSKY: Well, first of all, they hadn’t identified al Qaeda as the source. But, secondly, international law does not permit that. It does not permit retaliatory acts. It’s pretty clear, actually. The UN Charter, the basis of international law, permits the use of force when authorized, specifically, by the United Nations Security Council, which didn’t happen, or — this is Article 51 — in self-defense against an armed attack until the Security Council is able to act.

QUESTION: But what is self-defense if not retaliation? If you expect another attack to come…

CHOMSKY: If the United States is being bombed, let’s say, it can fight back — instantly notify the Security Council, ask the Security Council to act, and defend itself until the Security Council acts.

QUESTION: It was bombed.

CHOMSKY: It did not approach the Security Council. Notice this does not refer to retaliation against bombing. So, for example, when the United States carries out an attack against Nicaragua, Nicaragua is not entitled to set off bombs in Washington.

QUESTION: If the Russians had sent two missiles against New York instead of al Qaeda…

CHOMSKY: It could have retaliated.

QUESTION: Then you could retaliate?

CHOMSKY: You could retaliate.

QUESTION: What’s the difference?

CHOMSKY: Because you knew that the missiles came from Russia.

QUESTION: The US said they knew that they came from al Qaeda and the Taliban.

CHOMSKY: No, it guessed, it guessed.

QUESTION: But it was right, wasn’t it?

CHOMSKY: We don’t know whether it was right. It doesn’t make any difference.

QUESTION: Well, bin Laden has said he did it.

CHOMSKY: First of all, the fact that he said afterwards that he knew about it tells you nothing — and, also, it’s irrelevant.

QUESTION: Because he calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy who’d be killed based on the position of the tower…

CHOMSKY: Which means that he took credit for it several months later. If someone takes credit for something several months later, that does not authorize an attack before evidence is presented. Look, this entire discussion is irrelevant. If the United States wanted to observe international law, there was a very easy way to do it, namely, go to the Security Council, get a resolution authorizing the use of force, which it certainly could have done…

QUESTION: It got a resolution on September the 12th. The Security Council expressed readiness to take all necessary steps to respond…

CHOMSKY: Readiness. But it did not authorize the use of force. So, we may have these academic discussions about, you know, the intent of Article 51 — and, actually, I think the answer is that Article 51 doesn’t apply — but it’s kind of irrelevant because you could cut through all of this very simply by proposing a resolution which would, unambiguously and clearly, authorize the use of force. All of this is as clear a statement as you can imagine that we do not want to follow international law. We are telling the world we do not defer to any authority. And that makes perfect sense.

QUESTION: The US believes that it was in the position of somebody who wakes up in the middle of the night, finds a man standing over him with a hammer, and you would like them to approach the police, bring out the police, and ask the man with the hammer to wait while they do it.

CHOMSKY: No, no, I’m sorry. That’s not the way it works. You can defend yourself against the man with the hammer. And call the police. And ask them to–

QUESTION: They’ll wait while you do it?

CHOMSKY: No, excuse me, you keep defending yourself from the ongoing attack. You call the police, you ask them to take over. If you think you know who carried out the attack, you find evidence. You call for the equivalent of extradition… All this the United States and Britain flatly refused to do because they are telling the world, loud and clear, we do not defer to any authority.

QUESTION: The world didn’t object to it, did it?

CHOMSKY: Well, if the leading Mafia don in town wants to pick somebody up, he doesn’t get a court order. He just sends his goons to pick him up and nobody objects because they’re afraid.

QUESTION: What was so wrong with what Bush did? He stopped, he thought, he consulted, he attempted to build an international consensus. What was wrong with that?

CHOMSKY: Was it right to act in violation of law to just attack? Well, I think it was wrong.

QUESTION: Attack in self-defense [which you say?] is not the case, which you don’t accept.

CHOMSKY: Nor do you.

QUESTION: How do you know?

CHOMSKY: Well, let’s try it.

QUESTION: It doesn’t matter what I think.

CHOMSKY: Well, let’s try it. Let’s take an uncontroversial case — because we have a World Court decision and a Security Council resolution. The United States attacked Nicaragua for years. It practically destroyed the country, tens of thousands of people were killed.

QUESTION: This is a comparable situation, is it?

CHOMSKY: No, it’s much worse.

QUESTION: So why are we talking about it if it’s not a comparable situation?

CHOMSKY: It’s comparable though it’s much worse. Now, here is an ongoing armed attack. Did Nicaragua have the right to set off bombs in Washington? Do you think so?

QUESTION: It doesn’t matter whether I think it does… We’re asking for your views.

CHOMSKY: Well, I think it was–

QUESTION: A sufficient number of people did think it was all right.

CHOMSKY: No. Nobody thought it was right for Nicaragua to set off bombs in Washington. Nor did I. The reason is we don’t accept the principle that even a country that’s under ongoing armed attack has the right to retaliate with violence. What we believe is that what Nicaragua should have done is go to the appropriate international authorities — in this case, the World Court — get a judgment ordering the United States to terminate the attack. When the United States rejected the World Court decision, go to the Security Council, get a resolution calling on states to observe international law. When the United States vetoed that resolution, go the General Assembly and get authorization, which they did. When the US blocked that, they were finished. International law is impossible–

QUESTION: You say there’s been virtually no discussion of the option of adhering to the rule of law.

CHOMSKY: Exactly.

QUESTION: Why would there be no discussion? There’s been endless discussion…

CHOMSKY: Really?

QUESTION: … by human rights groups in Europe, by the media, by all kinds of organizations …

CHOMSKY: On a very narrow tactical issue — important one, but narrow. Initially, in mid-September, the rhetoric appeared to indicate that the US was planning a massive military attack. And there was a huge amount of discussion about that and great protest from NATO leaders–

QUESTION: That’s my point.

CHOMSKY: But that’s about a tactical matter. That’s whether you carry out a massive attack which is gonna slaughter civilians–

QUESTION: But that’s about whether it was right to–

CHOMSKY: No, no.

QUESTION: That was the discussion in Europe.

CHOMSKY: That was not the discussion in Europe. There was very little discussion as to–

QUESTION: The media was full of discussion programs–

CHOMSKY: Excuse me, the discussion was not about the following question: shall we go to the Security Council, get a resolution explicitly authorizing an action which will identify the criminals — who were unknown — find evidence, call for their extradition and if their extradition is not granted, use force to apprehend them? There was almost no discussion about that and you know that perfectly well.

QUESTION: I’m puzzled by one of your comparisons. You said when IRA bombs were set off in London, there was no call to bomb West Belfast.

CHOMSKY: Or Boston.

QUESTION: Why would any country attack itself? Why would Britain attack part of Britain, part of the United Kingdom?

CHOMSKY: Excuse me, because West Belfast was the place where the bombing was originating–

QUESTION: They were a part of the United Kingdom.

CHOMSKY: Makes no difference.

QUESTION: Doesn’t it?

CHOMSKY: Actually, what I said, to be clear, is there was no call to bomb Boston and West Belfast. Boston is the main source of the funding — that’s not in doubt — and West Belfast is presumably the place where the plans were made — or Derry or, you know, pick your example — where the bombers presumably came from.

QUESTION: But you accept that September 11th was an external attack. The difference is that the attack on London, for instance, was coming from inside the United Kingdom.

CHOMSKY: Fine. If you don’t like the case of West Belfast, let’s take the other case I mentioned, Boston. There was no call to bomb Boston although that’s the source of the financing.

QUESTION: There’s no call to bomb a lot of places which provided financing. There’s no call to bomb Saudi Arabia, is there, if we accept that Saudi Arabia provided financing to al Qaeda?

CHOMSKY: Suppose the British discovered — as they have, in fact — that some of the people involved in IRA bombing are in the United States and they’ve called for extradition of those people, the US has refused. Do they then have the right to bomb the United States?

QUESTION (pause): You think they’re– No, of course not.

CHOMSKY: Well, fine. Then you don’t think the United States has the right to bomb Afghanistan. ‘Cause it’s the same thing.

QUESTION: Professor Chomsky, in your book 9-11 — which went to press on October the 15th, it doesn’t take account of later developments — you talk about bin Laden’s motives for what he did and you say “I think there’s every reason to take him at his word.” Why would you take him at his word? You never take anybody at their word.

CHOMSKY: Two points. First of all, I often take people at their word, including governments. I usually take governments–

QUESTION: Not the US government.

CHOMSKY: The US government in particular. I usually take it at its word. So, for example, when Bill Clinton says we will act, at the United Nations, multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we feel it is necessary, I take him at his word. When the United States government gave its official reasons for bombing Serbia, namely, to maintain stability and to establish credibility, I take them at their word.

QUESTION: What about bin Laden?

CHOMSKY: In the case of bin Laden? You take them at their word when their word is, first of all, consistent over time, and also consistent with their actions. Then you take them at their word. Same with bin Laden. His statements are consistent over time and very consistent with his actions over a long period.

QUESTION: You said it was entirely possible he was telling the truth when he says he didn’t know about the operations?

CHOMSKY: Entirely possible. In fact, it still is entirely possible.

QUESTION: Even with the December video where he said “We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy who’d be killed based on the…” He had notification since the previous Thursday that…

CHOMSKY: I treat him the same way I do [Carter’s National Security Advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski. When Brzezinski says we lured the Russians into an “Afghan trap” — by supporting the Mujahadeen and that was a great achievement, we’ve now destroyed Afghanistan and set up a terrorist network, a wonderful achievement — in the same book, I said we have to be cautious about this because he may be boasting. Unless he gives us some evidence, the fact that he says later, “Yes, we drew them into an Afghan trap” doesn’t prove it. When [bin Laden] takes credit for [September 11th], we have to treat that statement the same way we treat the statement of the National Security Advisor of the United States. Is he boasting about something? Or is that really evidence? You know, in that case, I don’t really think it’s good evidence. Either Brzezinski or bin Laden.

QUESTION: Let me ask you a question about bin Laden. You take him at his word and then compare it to the US, compare it to Brzezinski.

CHOMSKY: Yes, for a simple reason. See, I believe in elementary moral principles, namely, if we apply some standard to someone else, we apply it to ourselves.

QUESTION: But you haven’t compared like with like, haven’t you?

CHOMSKY: This is like with like.



QUESTION: Bin Laden is comparable to Brzezinski?

CHOMSKY: No, no. That’s just a total non sequitur. In the case in point, each of these people is taking credit for an action that was carried out in the past and we have no evidence that the action was carried out in the past [by these people], and in both cases, they’re boasting of it and very proud of it and therefore we use the same criteria. I could say the same thing about two children on a playground. Doesn’t mean that they’re equivalent to bin Laden. This is elementary logic.

QUESTION: You accept his motives, don’t you?

CHOMSKY: Whose motives?

QUESTION: Bin Laden’s declared motives?

CHOMSKY: Accept? Yes, I agree with the CIA and British intelligence–

QUESTION: He and his network are intent on supporting Muslims defending themselves against infidels…

CHOMSKY: Excuse me, you’re misreading, crucially. I say that he, like every other gangster in history, calls whatever action they carry out “defensive.” So he describes himself as defending Muslim lands just the way Hitler described himself as defending the Aryan people against the Jews. That doesn’t mean it was defense. It means that just about every use of violence that you can think of in history is justified on the basis of defense.

QUESTION: You say nothing can justify crimes such as those of September the 11th but then you say we can think of the US as an innocent victim only if we adopt the conventional path of ignoring the record of its actions and those of its allies. So, the US is not an innocent victim, according to you?

CHOMSKY: There are no innocent victims.

QUESTION: It’s a guilty victim? It’s a guilty victim?

CHOMSKY: Like every–

QUESTION: They had this coming to them?

CHOMSKY: No, no. That’s your inference.

QUESTION: That’s the inference people get from reading what you’ve said.

CHOMSKY: If they’re totally irrational. If we’re rational–

QUESTION: A lot of irrational people out there.

CHOMSKY: I can’t help that. If we’re rational, we will recognize that the United States, Britain, France, and I can go down a long list, have a terrible record of atrocities. And that does not justify violent acts against them.

QUESTION: But you seem to see this moral equivalence …

CHOMSKY: There’s no moral equivalence.

QUESTION: …between bin Laden and Bush, don’t you?

CHOMSKY: Moral equivalence is a term of propaganda that was invented to try to prevent us from looking at the acts for which we are responsible.

QUESTION: You say there are plenty of bin Ladens on both sides.

CHOMSKY: There are bin Ladens all over the world.

QUESTION: That’s moral equivalence. That’s a polemic, isn’t it?

CHOMSKY: That’s not moral equivalence. There is no such notion. There are many different dimensions and criteria. For example, there’s no moral equivalence between the bombing of the World Trade Center and the destruction of Nicaragua or of El Salvador, of Guatemala. The latter were far worse, by any criterion. So there’s no moral equivalence. Furthermore, they were done for different reasons and they were done in different ways. There’s all sorts of dimensions–

QUESTION: But why, when the US is considering what to do about this, do you always go back to past crimes?

CHOMSKY: Not past. Present.

QUESTION: You mentioned Nicaragua.

CHOMSKY: I mentioned that because it’s uncontroversial. Since there’s a World Court [decision], Security Council resolution… Since it’s uncontroversial, it’s a good example. I mention these cases–

QUESTION: Are you kicking the US when it’s down?

CHOMSKY: No. I’m asking that we accept the definition of “hypocrite” given in the Gospels. I think that’s correct. The hypocrite is the person who refuses to apply to himself the standards he applies to others. I don’t think we should be hypocrites.

QUESTION: To what aim do you do this? To what aim do you wish to point this out?

CHOMSKY: Because I think we should try to rise to the level of minimal moral integrity. Once we can rise to the level of minimal moral integrity, then we can discuss these issues seriously. If we can’t even rise to that level, there isn’t any point talking. Minimal moral integrity requires that if we think something is wrong when they do it, it’s wrong when we do it.

QUESTION: Fred Halliday, who is Professor of International Relations at the LSE [London School of Economics], he says that you overestimate US power and underestimate a public shift in attitudes and debate on human rights in the last ten years. Do you accept that?

CHOMSKY: Well, I read the article. He didn’t give any evidence so I can’t comment. But I’ve emphasized repeatedly the growth of the human rights climate in the last thirty years and I think it’s one of the most important developments of the last thirty years.

QUESTION: Do you overestimate US responsibility for everything that goes wrong?

CHOMSKY: Where, for example?

QUESTION: There are Third World regimes that are oppressive and not controlled by America.

CHOMSKY: Suppose I tell you that you’re overestimating British responsibility? You can’t answer that. What’s the evidence? I may be — but where am I overestimating it? That’s the kind of claim that no serious person makes about anyone.

QUESTION: Fred Halliday is not a serious person?

CHOMSKY: If I were to say “Fred Halliday underestimates US responsibility for actions in the world,” that would be a totally irresponsible statement unless I give my reasons. A serious person doesn’t make accusations like that. If you want to make an accusation against someone, give your reasons, then we can evaluate them.

QUESTION: Professor Chomsky, do you think you overestimated the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan? Pakistan News Service has you saying on a November trip to Pakistan, only ten days before the bombing, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization had warned that over seven million people would face starvation in Afghanistan if military action was initiated.

CHOMSKY: I wasn’t overestimating it. I was quoting the Food and Agricultural Organization.

QUESTION: But you give the impression that the bombing alone would endanger the lives of seven million people.

CHOMSKY: I didn’t give that impression at all. What I said is that, before the bombing, there were, according to UN estimates, about five million people facing starvation. According to the New York Times, the effect of the threat of bombing, let alone the bombing, would be to place an additional two and a half million people at risk. They were quoting UN sources. And I quoted them. If it’s an overestimate, it’s not mine. It’s the overestimate of the New York Times, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Program, and others. There’s a separate question: did it happen? Totally separate. Interesting and important question but it’s not the basis on which we carry out–

QUESTION: So you were still right to issue the warning–?

CHOMSKY: I was right to quote the warnings of every international authority on the basis of which the actions were undertaken and commentary was made. And, furthermore, I was right to point out the elementary truism that we evaluate the actions, and the commentary on them, on the basis of the expectations on which the actions were taken. Now, there’s a separate question — important separate question: what are the effects? Well, what I said at the same point is: we’ll never know.

QUESTION: Well, the effects, according to Oxfam, are that for some the dangers have receded — for others, they’ve got worse.

CHOMSKY: Exactly.

QUESTION: It’s a mixed and complex picture.

CHOMSKY: Let’s first establish the fact, which is elementary, that whatever the consequences are — and they’re important — they’re completely irrelevant to this issue. Okay, having established that, let’s look at the consequences. The consequences, first of all, are mixed and, secondly, the point that I made in the book, back in October, is, I believe, correct. They will never be investigated. I hope I’m wrong about that. As I said there, I hope that we will break the historical pattern, a very overwhelming historical pattern, and actually look at the consequences of our own actions. That almost never happens.

QUESTION: It’s happened in many– It’s happened over Kosovo, it’s happened over the Balkans–

CHOMSKY: Excuse me, that’s someone else’s crimes. You investigate, laser-like, other people’s crimes but you don’t investigate your own. The Kosovo case is quite dramatic.

QUESTION: The War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague looked at investigating NATO and its actions in Kosovo.

CHOMSKY: For a few days. And you notice what happened? [The tribunal’s chief prosecutor] Carla del Ponte brought it up for a few days. She was immediately informed in the strongest terms that you’d better not do that and she backed off.

QUESTION: As [former chief prosecutor] Louise Arbour had been warned before her.

CHOMSKY: “You better not do it” and they backed off immediately.

QUESTION: Why do you say they backed off immediately? She said there wasn’t a case to [warrant it?].

CHOMSKY: That’s backing off.

QUESTION: That’s saying there isn’t a case to [?]. It’s not necessarily caving into pressure, is it?

CHOMSKY: Really? I mean, it’s not necessarily that but, in fact, the course of events was: They announced that they were thinking of looking into NATO crimes. There was a statement — I think it was from [NATO spokesperson] Jamie Shea, who was asked about it — saying that “we fund the tribunal, they’re not gonna look into our crimes.” An American congressman in Canada was asked about it and he said if they start looking into NATO crimes, we will take the United Nations buildings apart brick by brick.

QUESTION: That’s bombast, isn’t it?

CHOMSKY: Is it? A few days later, they said, “Well, there aren’t any NATO crimes.” But, going back to your question, they did not investigate NATO crimes.

QUESTION: To your satisfaction.

CHOMSKY: They didn’t do it, period. They said they’re not gonna do it.

QUESTION: Because we’re running out of time, I just want to ask you what you think your questioning has achieved [since September 11th?]… What do you think you’ve achieved?

CHOMSKY: Well, look, I mean, I don’t attribute it to myself, of course, but, in the United States and wherever I’ve been– Well, let’s take the United States. In the United States, there is a level of questioning, openness, protest, and concern about these actions which is beyond anything in my memory at any remotely comparable stage of a military confrontation.

QUESTION: You’re encouraged by this?

CHOMSKY: Yeah, I think it’s a sign of the increased civilization of the American population. Just as the human rights culture is.

QUESTION: So [the situation?] isn’t as bleak as you thought it was?

CHOMSKY: It’s not as bleak as I thought it was forty years ago. In fact, what I’ve insisted over and over again, and I think is true, is that the effect of the popular activism of the last forty years has been to make the country a much more civilized place.