Action, not Speculation

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Cynthia Peters

ZNet, March 9, 2003

1. Do you have any predictions about what we might expect in the coming weeks?

If anything’s obvious from the history of warfare, it’s that very little can be predicted.  But what’s going to happen is not war.  The disparity of force is so extraordinary that the term “war” doesn’t apply.  We wouldn’t call it a boxing match if the world champion were in a ring with a kindergarten child.  So this one is fairly predictable, just as it was predictable, and predicted (right here, for example), that the Taliban would be easily defeated.

My guess is that the superhawks are right.  There’ll be a devastating blow, and the society will collapse.  What happens then in Iraq is anybody’s guess.  Or elsewhere, including here.  There is no reason to doubt the near-universal judgment that an attack on Iraq will increase the threat of terror and development and use of weapons of mass destruction.  And the threat is serious, as has been known for many years, long before 9-11. Perhaps it is enough to quote the primary conclusion of the high-level Hart-Rudman task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations: America — Still Unprepared, Still in Danger: The threat of “catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil” is grave, and “the need for immediate action [to counter the threat] is made more urgent by the prospect of the United States’s going to war with Iraq.” The reasons have been repeatedly explained, and are pretty obvious without reliance on experts.

  2. Is there any chance of Blair backing out at this point, and if so do you  think Bush would consider proceeding solo?

Blair is under a lot of internal pressure, and the same is true of other members of “the coalition of the willing.” It can hardly have escaped notice that the huge February demonstrations reached by far the largest scale and intensity where the governments were lining up with Washington, in every case over enormous popular opposition: Spain, Italy, Engand.  In Italy, it’s reached almost 90 percent opposition to war under any conditions, and close to that in Spain.  In the international Gallup poll released in January, support for the Bush-Powell war scarcely reached 10 percent anywhere, meaning that it is essentially non-existent among the public.  Even totalitarian states have to pay some attention to public opinion, more democratic societies even more so.  If Britain backs down, which is unlikely but not inconceivable, the Bush administration will face some difficult choices, which they have attempted to pre-empt by making it almost impossible for them not to go to war.  Still, nothing is certain in human affairs.

  3. Assuming that war comes, should the anti-war movement be depressed about  its ineffectuality?

That’s like suggesting that abolitionists, or advocates of rights of working people or women, or others concerned with freedom and justice, should have been depressed about their inability to attain their goals, or even make progress towards them, over very long periods.  The right reaction is to intensify the struggle.  In this case, we should recognize that the anti-war movement was unprecedented in scale, so that there is a better base for proceeding further.  And that the goals should be far more long-term.  A large part of the opposition to Bush’s war is based on recognition that Iraq is only a special case of the “imperial ambition” that is widely condemned and rightly feared; that’s the source of a good part of the unprecedented opposition to Bush’s war right at the heart of the establishment here, and elsewhere as well.  Even the mainstream press now reports the “urgent and disturbing” messages sent to Washington from US embassies around the world, warning that “many people in the world increasingly think President Bush is a greater threat to world peace” than Saddam Hussein (Washington Post lead story).  That actually goes back to the Clinton years, but it has become far more significant today.  With good reasons.  The threat is real, and the right place to counter it is here.  Whatever happens in Iraq, the popular movements here should be invigorated to confront this far larger and continuing threat, which is sure to take new forms, and is quite literally raising issues of the fate of the human species.  That aside, the popular movements should be mobilized to support the best outcomes for the people of Iraq, and not only there of course.  There’s plenty of work to do.

  4. Does the US agenda include democracy in Iraq and beyond?

If it’s left to Washington, the best that can realistically be hoped is the kind of “democracy” that the current political leadership — mainly, recycled Reaganites — and others in power have instituted elsewhere in their domains: Central America and the Caribbean, to take the region that provides the richest evidence the last time they controlled the government, through the 1980s, and in fact over a century.  But under popular influence, other outcomes are possible. We don’t live in a a military dictatorship, after all.  We are highly privileged, by comparative standards.  There are plenty of opportunities to shape “the US agenda.”

  5. How do you think the U.S. ability to carry out that agenda will be  affected by the opposition of traditional U.S. allies to the war?

Hard to say.  I presume they will be even more reluctant to deal with the wreckage left by a US assault than they have been elsewhere, which does not bode well for Iraq or the region.  But speculation about that should not be our highest priority.  The more significant question is how we can shape the agenda.

  6. Can you describe what, if any, shifts there might be in the alignment of  power among nations as the U.S. pursues this unilateral course?  What might be the implications for NATO?

The US has always been ambivalent about European unification.  It has obvious advantages for US economic and strategic power, but there has always been concern that Europe might move towards an independent course.  Furthermore, the social market system in Europe has always been regarded as a threat, rather in the way that Canada’s health care system has been feared: these are “viruses” that might “infect” the US population, to borrow the terminology of US planners when they moved to crush independent social and economic development throughout the third world.  These concerns have motivated US policies towards Europe (and Japan, and elsewhere) since World War II, constantly taking new forms.  They were, for example, expressed by Henry Kissinger in his “Year of Europe” address in 1973, when he instructed Europe that it had only “regional responsibilities” within an “overall framework of order” managed by the US government.  NATO was conceived, in part, as a way to ensure US control over Europe — not without support from sectors of European elites, who despise the social market system, and fear European independence, for much the same reasons as their counterparts here.  The US is strongly in favor of the accession of the Eastern European countries to the European Union for these reasons.  Washington expects to have enough control over them so that they will dilute tendencies towards independence in Europe.  And there is quite unconcealed exultation that their reservoir of cheap and easily exploited labor will undermine the European welfare state and the rights of working people, and will drive Europe to the US model of low wages, high workload, limited benefits and job security, high concentration of wealth — and general economic performance pretty similar to Europe’s by most measures.  And that has obvious appeal to the corporate sector in Europe as well.

These are long-term factors.  How they will play out, and how they will be affected by popular movements, no one can say with any confidence.

That’s just Europe, not the world.  For about 30 years, the world has been “tripolar” economically, with three major power centers, including Japan-based Asia and now the growing role particularly of China.  That raises all sorts of other questions, too intricate to try to pursue here.

  7. Is there anything different that the broad global movement for peace and justice should be doing as we enter this new post-Iraq era?

Its priorities should be about the same as before, as far as I can see.  I also think it’s an exaggeration to speak of a “new post-Iraq era,” except with regard to the region itself, and the further affirmation of the “imperial ambition” that is a cause of deep concern in the world, rightly, and even within the US establishment.

  8. If the Bush administration proceeds with its war plans, along with a “coalition of the willing,” what will it mean for the future of the UN?

Like other questions, that’s really for us to decide.  Speculation is pretty idle, if only because the answers will depend a lot on what we do inside the most powerful country in world history.

The UN has never been able to act beyond the limits imposed by the great powers, which means primarily the US.  The current administration, in its Reaganite phase, announced very clearly and explicitly that the UN, the World Court, international law, and other institutions of world order are irrelevant unless they support Washington’s resort to violence.  The State Department explained that since other countries do not agree with us, we will reserve to ourselves the decision as to what lies within the “domestic jurisdiction” of the US: in the specific case in question, Washington’s international terrorist campaign against Nicaragua.  The Reaganites were not breaking entirely new ground of course, but this was an unusually brazen articulation of the reigning doctrine of contempt for anyone who gets in the way.  The fact that all of this is wiped out of official history (and never reported at the time) doesn’t make it unreal.  If freedom and democracy were considered to be values by elite sectors here, all of this would be taught in elementary school.  Pretty much the same political leadership is back in power, and in their current phase, they even more extreme and forthright in telling the world to get lost: either you authorize us to do what we want and remain “relevant,” or you refuse to do so, in which case we will do what we want anyway and you will be kicked into the ashcan of history.  They could hardly be more clear, and it’s well understood around the world.  Whether these clearly-announced plans can be implemented — that is for us to determine.  There’s no point in speculation.

  9. Do you think we would be seeing the same policies had Gore become  president following the 2000 election?

Not easy to say.  Take the peak moments of American liberalism, the Kennedy-Johnson administrations.  Were they less violent and aggressive, less prone to risking global destruction, than their predecessors and followers?  Not easy to reach that conclusion.  I think there would have been some differences in the present case, mostly reflecting domestic policies.  The Bush administration is escalating the assault on the general population that they carried out in the 1980s.  Just as then, these policies are naturally very unpopular, and they can retain their hold on power only by keeping the population frightened — very much as in the 80s.  They are following the same script very closely.  That leads to more aggressive and violent policies, and a confrontational stance in world affairs.  With a somewhat different domestic agenda, “new Democrats” of the Gore variety would be less prone to adopt such means to keep the population under control.  On the other hand, they are less resistant to attacks from the reactionary statist elements (called “conservative” in political rhetoric).  That might drive them towards more aggressive policies to fend off charges of lack of “vigor” or “patriotism” and the rest of the familiar tirade.  So, hard to say.  And again, a large part of the answer to the question is for us to determine, not speculate about.