On 9-11

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Nicholas Holt

Asheville Global Report, March 8, 2002

AGR: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has expanded US military operations around the world. In addition to Afghanistan, troops are deployed in the Philippines and the Republic of Georgia. Vice-president Cheney has announced “operations underway” in Bosnia and off the Horn of Africa, and additionally, the Bush administration has sought to marry the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terrorism” and increase US involvement in the Colombian civil war. And there is, of course, the “Axis of Evil” with N. Korea, Iraq, and Iran, as well as Somalia, Yemen, Lebanon, and Sudan, all as potential future targets.

Does this state of affairs reflect something new in US ambitions, or are we seeing the same old imperialism dressed up in the flashy new clothes of the “War on Terror?”

Chomsky: My own view is that the most important change since Sept. 11 is the establishment of what look like will be permanent military bases in Central Asia. So the substantial development in Uzbekistan and several of the other surrounding countries… establishes a new military presence in the world which the United States did not have before, in addition to the already established ones in the Pacific, in the Middle East, Latin America, in fact, throughout the world. That’s a global system, but it had not yet established major centers in Central Asia. That’s important, for one thing, because the resources of Central Asia, while not on the scale of the [Persian] Gulf, are nevertheless substantial and there’s a good deal of jockeying for power.

This is what in the 19th century used to be called the “Great Game.” In those days it was mainly a conflict between the Russian Empire and the British Empire, which were both expanding into that area. There was a lot of fighting over Afghanistan about that. Now it’s taking on a new form, the major concern now being energy resources and other material resources in the region. China doesn’t like what the US is doing, it’s right on their borders, Russia doesn’t like it, its on their borders. They’ve regarded it as their sphere of influence. Iran certainly doesn’t like it.

In fact, what drives it has nothing to do with terrorism. What drives it is control over resources, and that’s important. It’s not just oil. For example, another major resource, which people don’t pay enough attention to, is water. That may turn out to be as important or more important than oil in the coming years.

The major sources of water in that region happen to be in eastern Turkey, which I just came back from, and which happens to be the region of some of the worst atrocities and ethnic cleansing of the 1990’s, thanks primarily to Bill Clinton who provided the arms and military and economic support for it. These are Turkish atrocities, massacres, and so on, in the Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey, which is primarily important. I meant a lot of strategic importance, but part of it is because it controls some of the major water resources in the region. That’s where there’ve been big struggles over dam building and many other things. So that’s part of it as well.

Water resources are localized. Central to them is mountain tops. That’s where they come from. The UN just put out a big report warning that most of the wars going on in the world now are in mountain areas, like in Afghanistan, and they’re having a devastating effect on potential water supplies.

But these are big problems, so, if you want to consider military deployment, my own view, at least, is that the most important one, so far, by a good margin, is the establishment of what look like permanent Central Asia military bases.

Of the other cases that you mentioned, the one in the Philippines, in my view, is for domestic consumption. Actually, Kristoff, of The New York Times, had a pretty fair article on this a few days ago. They’re going after a criminal gang, which probably has a couple of dozen people, and no connections to any form of international terrorism. They’re criminals, undoubtedly. What’s probably needed is a couple hundred Philippine troops, but the problem with the Philippine troops is, the military there is probably involved in the same criminal activities and may not go after them. US Special Forces and the rest of it has nothing to do with anything.

It’s very important for the Bush administration to get people here frightened. The last thing they want is for people in the United States to pay attention to what the Bush administration is doing to them, to the fact that its working on a very substantial transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. That’s what the tax cuts are about and all the rest of the shenanigans.

They’re destroying the environmental protection system. Just this morning there was the resignation of one of the top EPA officials, [because] they’re not willing to regulate and that means destroying the environment in which our grandchildren will be able to survive.

They’re trying very hard to undermine what remains of welfare programs, Medicaid, Social Security, and so on. All of these [cuts] are extremely harmful to the population and very beneficial to their rich supporters. They certainly don’t want people to be paying attention to that or to the Enron scandal and Cheney’s dealings with oil companies, and that sort of thing. So the best way to prevent that and to carry through this agenda, which is what’s really important to them, is to get people to be frightened. The best way to control people is to frighten them.

Sept. 11 was just a gift to them and to other harsh and repressive elements throughout the world. That was evident instantly. That was the first thing I said when I was asked by reporters what I thought the effect would be. And, yes, that’s what it is. They have to keep people frightened, keep having scares come, make it look as if they’re doing something bold and courageous to defend the American people from international terrorism. And the best thing to do is to pick up cheap targets which are not costly and where you can strike dramatic gestures and so on. What’s better than a couple of criminals running around some island off the Philippines? So I think that’s what the Philippines operation is about.

Colombia is just a continuation of Clinton policies. Maybe it will step up a little, but it’s the same counter-insurgency programs that have been going on for actually 40 years, stepped-up extensively under Clinton, under the pretext of the “Drug War,” which has very little to do with it, and now extended further under Bush. So that’s a continuation.

Of the various potential military operations that you mentioned, the one that I think is serious is Iraq. Again, that has nothing to do with international terrorism.

The Iraq policy is also a kind of continuation, but it could change. They may consider this to be an opportunity to reestablish control over Iraq, which is extremely important. Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world, much of it under-developed or undeveloped. Saudi Arabia is the major one, Iraq is second, and it’s substantial. It’s estimated to be huge, way beyond the Caspian, East and Central Asian region. You can just be confident that the United States is not going to allow that to stay out of control and certainly not to fall under the influence of its rivals, like, say, France and Russia, which have the inside track now on Iraqi oil. So one way or another, the US will do what it can, and it can do a lot, to regain its control over those resources.

It has nothing to do with terrorism, it has nothing to do with Saddam Hussein’s atrocities. We know that for certain. The reason we know that is because, you hear Clinton, [British Prime Minister]Tony Blair, Bush and [former Secretary of State] Albright, and the rest of them talking about what a monster Saddam Hussein is, we can’t let him survive, he used chemical warfare against his own population and he carried out major massacres and so on.

All of those charges are correct. But they’re just missing three words, namely: with our support.

It’s true, he carried out all these atrocities, developing weapons of mass destruction — with our support. The US and Britain supported him, and continued to support him well after the atrocities, continued to provide him with technology to develop weapons of mass destruction, as they knew, at a time when he was really dangerous, much more dangerous in the 1980’s when this was going on than today. So the charges are correct, but they’re plainly irrelevant. And they’re just pure deception. Unless one points out, yeah, he did all these horrible things with our support, then this is just worse than lies. So it’s not because of his atrocities, its not because of terrorism, to which he may have connections or not. (they haven’t even tried to show anything). It’s in order to regain control of, primarily, the oil resources in a very rich area. And that involves a lot of complications.

It involves Turkey, for example. A very live issue in Turkey right now is whether to agree to US pressure for Turkey to provide the ground forces for an invasion of Iraq. [The US] have to have some kind of ground forces. They have nothing comparable to the Northern Alliance there and it’s a much more substantial opponent. Turkey, of course, has a huge army, and according to discussion inside Turkey, and a little bit here, they are being pressured to agree to send their military forces in to take over northern Iraq, something which they have mixed feelings about. The negative side is that they’re going to get a lot more Kurds under their control and they have plenty of problems dealing with their own Kurdish population, which they treat extremely ruthlessly — with US support. That’s how they can get away with it. The last thing they want is a bigger Kurdish population.

On the other hand, the positive side for them is that Turkey has always felt, with some justice, that what’s called Northern Iraq should really be inside Turkey. A lot of the population is Turkish. The border between Turkey and Iraq was just established by the British. It had no meaning. It was established in order to ensure that Britain would keep control of the oil resources of Northern Iraq and that they wouldn’t go to Turkey. The Turks aren’t exactly delighted with this, obviously…

If Turkey takes it over, it means the US takes it over, because it’s a client state, and the US would somehow take over the rest. You can be fairly confident that plans of that kind are being considered very seriously and might be implemented.

If the other [potential military actions] are implemented, I think it would be kind of like the Philippines, just for domestic purposes, to frighten the American population, make them huddle under the wings of the great hero who will defend us from evil and so on and so forth. That’s a way to control people and to keep them from seeing what their great hero is doing to them, which is pretty ugly.

AGR: Speaking of the domestic front, many people have become concerned about threats to civil rights in the US as we engage in what seems to be an endless “War on Terror.” The USA PATRIOT Act, passed by Congress in the name of “homeland defense,” expanded the government’s freedom to tap phones, detain suspects, monitor internet communications, and conduct secret searches, while at the same time reducing judicial oversight of such actions. Additionally, President Bush has passed an executive order to keep all presidential records since 1980 locked away, and Attorney Gen. Ashcroft has urged various federal agencies to actively resist Freedom of Information Act requests.

You’ve remarked a number of times that Americans have greater access to internal government records than perhaps anyone else in the world, a resource that is obviously very important in the work you do. What are your concerns regarding these issues of civil rights?

Chomsky: There are concerns. I’m less concerned about them than a lot of other people are, because I think there’s too much resistance to it domestically. But one is certainly right to be concerned. One instantaneous reaction to Sept. 11, predictable and instantaneous, is that every harsh, repressive force in the world, virtually, regarded it as a window of opportunity to pursue their own agenda. So in, say, Russia, it meant stepping up their atrocities in Chechnya. In Turkey, it meant increasing repression against freedom of speech, particularly against the Kurdish population, and in Israel it meant sending tanks into refugee camps.

In the United States, Britain, India, and other such democracies, it means increasing efforts to control the domestic population. The elite groups in the political system, the economic system, and the ideological system despise democracy, for perfectly good reasons: they want to control things. They don’t want the people to be involved. So, if they can find ways to marginalize the public and to protect state power from public scrutiny, they’ll naturally use those methods, and the Bush administration is using them.

There’s not unanimity within elite circles. This group that happens to be in power now is toward the more authoritarian, and, if you like, quasi-fascist, side of the spectrum. It’s not new. The Reagan administration, for example…

[U]nder the laws you are supposed to release documents after a 30-year period. After that, the government is supposed to release declassified documents, not all of them, and with some internal censorship, but most of them are supposed to be released. And there’s the committee of historians, pretty conservative historians, from the academic world, who supervise this process for the State Dept. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

The Reagan administration was supposed to be releasing documents from the early 1950’s that included the US coup in Iran and the military coup in Guatemala. Those are the major, crucial ones. They didn’t release them. They apparently destroyed them. This was so blatant an act of quasi-fascism, that the historians’ board resigned in public protest. That had never happened before. And these are very conservative guys.

Well, that was extreme, but the Bush administration is the same people and they would like to do the same thing. They do not want the public to have any idea what the state is doing. They claim to be free-market people, and all that kind of stuff, but that’s nonsense. Like the Reaganites, they believe in an extremely powerful state which serves the interests of the rich and which is immune to inspection by the public. That’s their faith. They want to have that. I don’t want to suggest that it’s just them. That’s the general consensus, but they’re at the extreme end.

So, yes, they’re using this opportunity to try to protect state power from public scrutiny. That’s part of trying to make the public more obedient and submissive. The so-called PATRIOT ACT, (anybody who looks at the name knows exactly what to expect) yeah, that’s aimed at the same direction. They would like more control over people, more surveillance, more obedience, more fear, general marginalization. That’s the way you can get away with that. You can ram through policies you know the public is opposed to.

Take the international economic treaties, the things that are called “free-trade agreements” — they have very little to do with free trade. They know the public’s opposed to these things, strongly, so therefore, you have to do it in secret. It’s amazing the way it works. Today’s New York Times, for example, in the business section, which people usually don’t read, but should, there’s an article which is mostly about accounting, the Anderson scandal, and Enron, and that sort of thing, but if you look inside it, it says that there are new principles being implemented under GATS, the General Agreement on Trade and Services. Then the author says that the GATS negotiations have attracted none of the public attention and protest that has been directed against the World Trade Organization. I can’t say the guy’s lying, because he probably doesn’t know, but that is the main focus of the protests. You could only find that out if you ever listen to what the people are saying at the protests, but it’s a point of principle The New York Times, The Washington Post, and everywhere, that you do not pay attention to the proposals, discussions and concerns of the protesters. You focus concern solely on the fact that someone broke a window somewhere. And since that’s the law from the editorial offices, and it’s understandable why, the reporters probably don’t even know that this has been the main focus of protest. To know that they’d have to pay attention to what people are saying. You can’t do that.

It’s been the main focus of protest for a very good reason. The GATS is a major assault against democracy. And you see that as soon as you ask what “Services” mean. Services doesn’t mean just accounting practices. It means just about everything that is in the public arena. So, education, health, control over resources, welfare, communications, and the post office — that’s services. Those are things that, in a democratic society, the people are supposed to have something to say about it.

Well, one way to completely undermine democracy is to hand all of that over to private power. Private power is unaccountable. Except by congressional subpoena, you can’t find out what’s happening inside one of the private tyrannies, like General Electric or Enron or any of the others. They’re tyrannies, and they’re mostly unaccountable. So if you can transfer the public arena into their hands, you can have formal elections and it doesn’t matter. It’s kind of like formal elections in Russia in the old days. There’s nothing at stake. This is called “Trade and Services” — but it has absolutely nothing to do with trade — in order to put it under the framework of the various international agreements. That’s in the main focus, like at the protests at Quebec last April at the Summit of the Americas. That was one of the main themes. But in order to know that, you’d have to pay attention to what the protesters are saying and what’s going on in their meetings and so on and that is ruled out. So, therefore, you can have a report like this.

But the government knows, and elites know, that the public is really opposed to the things they’re trying to push through and they have to do it in secret for that reason and they have been able to do it to an extent after Sept. 11. One of the first things they did was to push through what’s called “fast track” legislation, which is supposed to have something to do with free-trade, but it actually doesn’t. It has to do with democracy. The issue is whether the executive branch of the white house, can make international treaties without Congressional participation and without public knowledge.

According to fast track, Congress is permitted to say “yes.” That’s the degree of its participation, and it happens without the public knowing it. So that’s kind of like the Kremlin in the old days. That’s the way Stalin made agreements and the Duma, the parliament, could say “yes.” The most ardent free-trader would be opposed to this if they had any commitment to democracy. Its called “free trade” because that’s the only way, without public interference, that the government and business can push through their own international economic agreements, which are not free trade agreements. They’re investor rights agreements.

So yes, they used the Sept. 11 opportunity to get that through and if they can keep the public ignorant and frightened and involved in something else, there are opportunities to do other things. Take what’s called “privitization of Social Security,” which they want desperately. That’s extremely harmful to the general population. It’s great for Wall St. It’d be a bonanza for Wall St. They’d have huge amounts of money on their hands. As far as the general population is concerned, it’s a very chancy operation, much worse than plenty of other alternatives. For one thing, the whole Social Security crisis is mostly a fraud. In fact, they are trying to increase the Social Security crisis right now by sending the government deeply into debt with tax cuts for the rich and huge Pentagon spending, which is going to force them — in fact they concede that there’s no debate about it — to deplete potential Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid funds. If they can drive the Social Security system into a crisis, which it is not in right now, they will be able to frighten people into handing it over to Wall St. It’s just going to make people at the mercy of the stock market, hardly a means of gaining security as Enron employees know very well.

But also it has a deeper purpose. Suppose you are a working person and your pension depends on what happens in the stock market. If you’re concerned about your pension you’re going to have to act in ways which support profits for major corporations because that’s what your future depends on. In other words, you will be committed, throughout your life, to working against your own rights. You’ll have to be committed to working against the rights of working people, poor people, union rights, labor rights, anything. You’ve got to be against that, because being against that is what increases profits for the rich, and your future is going to depend on profits for the rich. It’s a terrific way to control people. In fact, that’s probably its main purpose, to undermine possibilities for struggling for your own rights and for human rights in general. That’s privatization of Social Security, and if they can manage to drive the perfectly sound system into a crisis, well, maybe they can push that through by appropriately frightening people, by the right kind of propaganda. It’s possible. Those are the kinds of things [they don’t] want people to pay attention to or to think about. What [they want people] to pay attention to is that there’s a criminal on an island off the Philippines and our brave forces are helping attack.

AGR: After 9-11 and the subsequent military actions, there was, of course, a massive increase in patriotic expression. You saw the pro-USA paraphernalia, the ubiquitous flag stickers on automobiles, memorial images of the Trade Towers, and the not-uncommon “Love It Or Leave It” T-shirts.

Within the anti-war movement itself there was some debate over the role of “love of country” in resisting state violence. Some ascribe to the “peace is patriotic” approach, while others take the internationalist position that nation-states themselves are impediments to peace.

Could you comment on these positions and on the challenge of maintaining fidelity to one’s ideals and convictions — in your case anarchist and libertarian-socialist — while fighting practical battles in the real-world to, as you’ve said before, “widen the floor of the cage?”

Chomsky: First of all, I don’t see any conflict. It seems to me, the general principal is you say what you believe. Keep true to your beliefs. That’s the only way to reach people. Not only is that the right thing to do, but itss well worth it. I talk to every imaginable kind of audience, unions, activists, peace activists, whatever they are and I say basically the same thing…

You have to ask yourself what the flag waving is about. To the extent that it’s about concern over major atrocities that were carried out against the United States, which were, and commitment to try to find the perpetrators, I share it. That’s what ought to be done when criminal actions take place. It’s what I think ought to be done against US leaders, for example, who were involved in criminal actions all over the place. For example, Turkey. So go after the perpetrators of the crimes in south-eastern Turkey, right up to Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. That would be exactly right. And the same in this case.

I think people understand that. They don’t hear it, naturally. But when they hear it, it rings a bell. Honesty usually rings a bell. And in that case the patriotism is okay, but it’s, I think, skin deep. Right beneath it are decent human beings who want to do the right thing. And the right way to appeal to people is on that basis. It’s not only the honest thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.

And I think yes, we should focus, as I always do in fact, on the nation-state as a major instrument of violence and oppression. I mean, take a look at the wars going on around the world. They are the result of the effort to impose nation-state systems where they don’t belong. The biggest war in the world right now, and in the last couple of years, is in the Congo. A couple of million people have been killed there. Nobody pays much attention — just a lot of black people killing each other. But what’s that about? Well, it’s the effects of the imperial states imposing boundaries which have nothing to do with the populations. In fact, Europe was the most savage place in the world for 500 years in its own effort to impose the nation-state system. It’s been a horrendous system. The history of the United States is an example. Just establishing the national territory was a brutal, murderous affair. So, yeah, I think we ought to point that out and I think people should understand it and can understand it.