On the Post-Iraq World

Noam Chomsky interviewed by John Junkerman

July 22, 2003

I’d like to start by saying thank you for doing the interview we did 14 months ago. The interview—in the shape of the film, Power and Terror, has given many people the opportunity to think about what’s going on in the world with a lot greater depth and perspective and engagement. We estimate that probably 100,000 people have seen the film, in Japan, the US, Australia, Canada, and now in Europe, and it is still playing, a year after it was finished, to standing-room-only audiences. We’re all grateful because it’s given us a great deal of insight, and also stimulated a lot of action.

We’re doing this interview today, aiming toward the next big event that we’re organizing in Tokyo, which is a gathering of about 2000 people. We’re trying to fill a very large theater, and the title of the event is “Let’s take a look at the Chomsky film and think about what we can do now.” That’s actually the way the film has been used in general, to encourage people not just to learn about things, but also to think about what can be done now.

A lot of events have taken place since we last talked 14 months ago, but, of course, the biggest one is the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Is it your sense that this invasion is an epoch changing event?

The invasion of Iraq was actually a piece of a much bigger picture. When we talked 14 months ago, we probably didn’t talk much about it. The reason is that the great government-media propaganda campaign– about Iraq being an imminent threat to the survival of the United States– began in September, a couple of months after we talked. And this campaign coincided with two other crucial events.

One was the announcement on September 17th of the National Security Strategy, which is not entirely without precedent, but it is something new. The Bush administration declared, quite frankly and brazenly, that the United States– their version of the United States– intends to dominate the world completely and permanently. This means that any potential challenge will be blocked, and if necessary destroyed by the use of military force. This is the one dimension of power, and this is crucial, in which the U.S. has overwhelming advantages. That’s not true economically, and it’s not true in other respects. It’s a more complicated world. But, militarily the United States is in a class by itself, and it’s expanding its military force enormously in extremely hazardous ways, which are worth looking at. And the intention is to use that advantage to control the world. So, that was announced in September.

When you announce a policy–if you want it to be taken seriously–you have to carry out what’s sometimes called “an exemplary action” to demonstrate that you really mean it. And Iraq was chosen to be the test case, what the New York Times later called “the petri dish,” in which the strategy is tried.

Now, Iraq was a very sensible test case. To be a test case for this strategy, a country has to meet several conditions. One, it must be completely defenseless. It doesn’t make any sense to attack anybody who can fight back. That would be ridiculous. So, it has to be defenseless, which of course Iraq was. It was one of the weakest countries in the region. It was devastated by sanctions. Its military expenditures were about a third of Kuwait’s, which has 10% of its population. It was under complete surveillance. They knew where every pocket knife in the country was. So, it was completely defenseless. That’s point one.

Secondly, it has to be important. There’s no point intervening in or conquering, say, Liberia. What are you going to do with it? Iraq is extremely important. It has the second largest reserves of oil in the world. The United States will end up dominating a major sector of the hugest energy reserves in the world. It has dominated it for a long time, but this will advance [that dominance]. Presumably, the U.S. will end up with military bases in Iraq. This is part of the shift of military bases towards the oil producing regions, and it will be the first real military base right in the oil producing regions. So, that’s very important.

And third you have to be able to portray the country as somehow evil or threatening our existence, or something like that. And that’s possible too. All you have to do is listen to every speech by George Bush or Tony Blair, and they say, “How can we let somebody survive who gassed his own population and invaded two countries, and was developing weapons of mass destruction,” and so on, all of which is completely true. But, they always omit the few crucial words. Yeah, he did all that, and we helped him. And we helped him because we didn’t care. And “we” is the people now running Washington.

They are almost completely recycled from the [Reagan-Bush] administration, which in fact was supporting Saddam Hussein right through his worst atrocities. They knew exactly what he was doing, and didn’t care. It wasn’t because of the war with Iran; the support continued after the war with Iran was over. In fact, it continued up to the day of the invasion of Kuwait. So, you have to suppress that, and you have to count on the media not to be impolite and bring it up. And then you add that, if he used gas against his own people, then he’s a threat to us. It doesn’t make any sense. The United States was the only country that feared Saddam Hussein. He was rightly despised everywhere, but he was feared only in the United States. Kuwait and Iran, the countries he invaded, didn’t fear him– they hated him, but they didn’t fear him. They knew he was powerless and weak and so on. But, in September he was [described as a threat to the US].

And there was a third thing in September, namely the opening of the mid-term election campaign. That’s connected. Karl Rove, the Republican campaign manager and one of the most important people in Washington, informed party activists over the summer that if they allow social and economic issues to be in the forefront of the campaign, they’re going to lose, because the [administration’s] social and economic policies are very harmful to most of the population and very unpopular. So, he said, “We have to focus the campaign on security.” If you can frighten the population, they will rally around the man presented as the powerful leader who will protect them from destruction. And then maybe “we can hold on to political power.” And that’s exactly what was done.

So, you had these three things at once: The National Security Strategy announcing the plan to dominate the world permanently, by force if necessary; the test case, to invade a defenseless country that’s worth controlling; and three, the effort to maintain a very narrow hold on political power, so that they can ram through an extremely reactionary domestic agenda, which is basically rolling back the progressive legislation of the past century– literally, and very consciously. [The domestic agenda] is serving the interests of very narrow sectors of power, and it is very unpopular, but you can get away with it if you can frighten people.

Iraq was used to frighten the population, and it worked. There was a major government media campaign and, within a month about 60% of the population thought that Iraq was an imminent threat to the United States. We had to defend ourselves from Iraq. Around the world that’s laughable. Even Kuwait didn’t believe that. In fact, no one did. But in the United States it worked.

Within a couple of months more, about half the population or more came to believe that Iraq was responsible for September 11th, and that it was planning new terrorist attacks. And these views, as you’d expect, are very closely correlated with support for war. And that’s understandable. I mean, if people think that there’s this monstrous country about to destroy us, that it had already carried out the September 11th attacks, and that it is planning new ones, well, we’ve got to defend ourselves. That way they could get some support for war. Not a lot, but some.

All of that has happened since, and it’s continuing. The Republican Convention was delayed until mid-September 2004, the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. That will be the opening of the presidential campaign, which has to follow the same strategy. In fact, Karl Rove has already announced that for the presidential campaign they’re going to have to focus on George Bush, the great war leader who saved us from terrorism and from Iraq. And there will probably be some new dragon to slay at that time, and we’ve got to defend ourselves from him. [The message will be:] Don’t pay any attention to the fiscal train wreck that we are consciously creating, which is going to force us (because we want to do it) to dismantle Social Security and Medicaid, and Medicare and other social services. [Or to policies] that transfer wealth– even more than in the past– into the pockets of a very narrow sector, and a rather corrupt sector of corporate power. Don’t pay any attention to that. Just pay attention to the fact that we’re going to defend you from disaster.

The victory was declared in Iraq on May 1st, in a carefully stage-managed event on the U.S. aircraft carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, where Bush was flown in wearing battle gear. They had to position the ship properly so they had the right background at sea and so on. It was kind of a joke but it was taken seriously, except by the serious press like the Wall Street Journal, which pointed out in its report that this wasn’t the end of the Iraq war; it was the opening of the election campaign. It’s the preparation of the carefully crafted cowboy leader in his battle gear, who is going to protect you and who already saved you from Iraq, which was just about to destroy us. And he is now going to save you from the next dragon.

They said this is the opening of the presidential campaign, which is correct. [The Republican convention] will be in New York in mid-September [2004], which is not accidental. You can just imagine how the public-relations system is already planning to present it. And it’s conscious, and they’re not secret about it. They actually tell us. And the better press, like the Wall Street Journal, points it out. So, yes, all of these things are connected.

The attack on domestic programs is a very serious matter. For these people that’s quite important. The core program is a huge tax cut for the very wealthy. There’s nothing much for anyone else, but for wealthy and privileged people it’s a huge savings. This is combined with a sharp increase in the federal budget, a big increase in government expenditures, a lot of which is called “military”–but, remember, that means high-tech industry generally, under the cover of the military. So, there is a huge increase in government spending for high technology and the military, combined with a sharp cutback in revenues because of the tax cuts for the wealthy. Of course, this leads to what’s called “a fiscal train wreck.”

Their own economists have estimated the costs. They expect a $44 trillion dollar fiscal deficit—a fiscal gap of unpaid bills. And that’s purposeful. When the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, was asked about this in a news conference: “Is this $44 trillion dollar figure correct? ” He said, “Yeah.” And that means that Congress will have to be “responsible” about Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security benefits and so on. When he says, “be responsible,” he doesn’t mean introduce progressive taxation to deal with the problems; he means cut [those social programs].

They can’t come before the country and say, “Elect us because we want to cut back everything that benefits the general population.” But, they can come before the country, they think, and say, “Because we’re defending you from imminent disaster, we had to spend all this money, and there’s just nothing left for all these things you’d like. We’d love to give them to you, but it’s a fiscal disaster and we have to be responsible. And so you’re going to have to cut back your wages and benefits and so on. And don’t look at those rich people over there who are having a ball.”

If we had talked two months ago after Bush declared victory, it might have seemed as if there was no stopping this juggernaut. And yet now it seems as if they aren’t going to be able to implement their agenda so easily.

It’s hard to say. This is a very public-relations oriented administration. I mean, all administrations are, but this one unusually so. Every figure is carefully crafted, coming out of central casting with a particular role. The Abraham Lincoln extravaganza is just a case in point. What they will probably do is just what Karl Rove indicated, manufacture another extremely dangerous situation. It doesn’t take much to manufacture one. It doesn’t have to be real, as we saw with Iraq. Whatever you think of Iraq, it was certainly no threat, but they were able to convince the country that it was a very serious threat. And if they manufacture another one then, somehow, people will forget about the problems in Iraq. Does anybody remember what happened in Afghanistan or Kosovo? People don’t even know what they were.

So, if you had to predict, you’d say they were going to be moving on to another target to distract the public’s attention?

If things go badly at home and in Iraq, they’ll have to. But this is not very novel. I mean, we should remember who they are. The administration is almost entirely recycled from the more reactionary elements of the Reagan and first Bush administrations. Not the whole administration, but the more reactionary elements are the ones who are now in office. They ran the country for 12 years that way with pretty much the same policies– not as extreme, but similar.

When the Reagan administration came in, the first thing they did was enact a sharp tax cut and a big increase in federal spending, which led to huge deficits, as part of an effort to cut back social spending and unravel New Deal legislation. Internationally, likewise, they wanted to use force for domination. They declared war on terror in 1981. It wasn’t as extreme as this time, but similar. And the Reagan policies were quite unpopular in the United States. At the end of the 12 years, after the first Bush administration, Reagan was ranked right alongside Nixon as the most unpopular living American president. Throughout the 80’s the policies were unpopular, but they could hold on to political power by pushing the panic button.

Remember, every year there was another major threat: Libyan hitmen, the Grenada air base, Nicaragua—”two days driving time from Harlingen, Texas.” Last October, the Congress passed a resolution authorizing the government to use force in Iraq, and if you look at the wording of it, it’s almost the same wording as the “national emergency” that Reagan declared in 1985, because of the threat to the security of the United States posed by the government of Nicaragua. If somebody was watching this from Mars, they’d start laughing. But it worked. People were afraid.

Domestic problems were also built up with huge propaganda campaigns to inspire fear, very successfully. George Bush number one was able to be elected in 1988 by running a straight, racist campaign. Do you remember Willy Horton? This black man, this black criminal is going to rape your sister unless you elect me. That was the theme of the campaign. People were terrified about crime. By implication, blacks are rapists and so on.

A couple of months later there was a drug scare: Hispanic narcotics traffickers are going to destroy the country. That became the lead issue. Crime and drugs are problems, but they’re no different in the United States from other industrial countries. Fear of crime, fear of drugs is way beyond other industrial countries. Fear of everything. And if you continue to conjure up threats to existence in a country which is pretty frightened to start with…

This goes way back incidentally. When my children were in elementary school around 1960, they were literally being taught to hide under their school desks to protect themselves from atom bombs. Putting aside the absurdity, is there any other country where school children were being taught to hide from atom bombs? There have been major efforts here for years to frighten the population into obedience. And people are afraid of everything. They’re afraid of aliens. A very large part of the population in the United States thinks there already are aliens among us, and they’re going to try to destroy us.

There is fear of the U.N. There are parts of the country where people are afraid that the U.N. is planning a genocide against the American people, and they report black helicopters with U.N. troops and so on. This is unique to the United States, as far as I’m aware, and unscrupulous leaders can manipulate it. Crime, drugs, Nicaragua, the Grenada air base, Saddam Hussein–you know, whatever it will be next.

But, there are real issues in the background. It’s not just controlling the American population that’s required; you also have to control the world. For 30 years now, the world has been economically tri-polar, with three major economic centers, more or less on a par. Europe, North America, and Japan-based Asia. That was the situation beginning 30 years ago; Asia is now not just Japan-based, it’s China-based and so on, but these three areas are still there.

If you look at the three of them, Northeast Asia is the most dynamic economic region in the world. It has the fastest growth. China is becoming a major industrial power, Japan and South Korea already are. There are plenty of resources. Siberia has lots of energy and other resources. It’s a potentially integrated area. The region actually holds about half the world’s foreign reserves. So, just in that respect, it’s the most important of the three major areas.

So the obstruction of that process, in a sense, is pushing North Korea against the wall, isn’t it? And pushing them to develop nuclear weapons whether they want to or not?

It is pushing them in that direction. You can see it. You can ask whether that’s the conscious intent of that or not. We can’t say. We don’t have television cameras in the internal planning meetings. But, it certainly looks like that. I think there must be internal debates going on, recognizing that this is dangerous. On the other hand, if we let integration develop, that’s also dangerous. They’ve got to make a choice. And there are similar questions about Europe and have been for years. Kissinger’s statement wasn’t out of the blue. That goes back a long time.

The United States has always been quite ambivalent about European unification. It favored it, in that Europe is a huge market. The basis of contemporary multinational industry and enterprise is the European market. The U.S. multinationals flourished on the European integration, so they’re very much in favor of it.

On the other hand, they’re worried about it, for the reasons that Kissinger mentioned. He was neither the first nor the last. This hysteria about new and old Europe is in large part a reflection of that. It’s not the “disobedience” of France and Germany [that is at issue].. Their unwillingness to follow U.S. orders is regarded as very threatening. Who knows what they’ll do next? That’s one of the reasons why the United States is so interested in expanding the European Union and NATO to include the Eastern European countries. It is assumed, probably rightly, that they will be more submissive to U.S. demands than the old centers of European power are. They’re kind of Trojan horse by which U.S. power can intervene.

And it’s also hoped that they’ll help undermine the European social market, which the U.S. doesn’t like at all, of course. They are a source of cheap labor– kind of a European Mexico– that can undermine the more progressive structure of the European social market system. All of this ties together, and it’s a complicated affair.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is shifting its military basing system from Central Europe towards the Middle East and Central Asia. Bases are moving from Germany to Bulgaria and Romania. Probably the major result of the Afghan war, from the U.S. point of view, is that the U.S. ends up with a strong military position in Central Asia, which is a benefit to U.S. corporations in the so-called Great Game, over who controls its resources, but, more important than that, it helps surround the far more significant Persian Gulf energy system, which is the main one in the world.

The U.S. military basing system, from Okinawa and Guam up to the Azores, has been focused, to a large extent, on the Middle East. And the same is true of the Central European ones. Now that’s moving closer to the region. Until the Afghan War, the U.S. had only one reliable military base near the Persian Gulf, namely the British island of Diego Garcia. The population was kicked out [of the island]. The British courts ordered the government to allow them to return, but the U.S. just refused. That’s a military base, but it was a small base in the middle of the ocean. Now they’ve got bases in Afghanistan, in Central Asia, and probably pretty soon in Iraq, and surrounding ones in Eastern Europe. The bases are moving toward the region that’s of crucial significance for strategic domination of the world.

They’re also moving from South Korea and Okinawa toward frontline positions.

South Korea is interesting. It’s a little ominous. The part of the North Korean deterrent that’s prevented a U.S. attack on North Korea is not nuclear weapons. It’s massed artillery right along the DMZ, which is aimed at Seoul and at American troops. That’s the deterrent. But the American troops are being withdrawn to the south, and that’s causing a lot of concern in both Koreas and in the region as to whether it’s a signal that the U.S. might attack, with its own soldiers out of artillery range. Pretty cynical, and I don’t believe it, but it’s something to worry about.

I’m sure that, meanwhile, the Pentagon is working very hard on precision-guided weapons and other methods for destroying that artillery to the north of the DMZ. And if they can figure out how to do that, then North Korea would be vulnerable. North Korea is not protecting itself with nuclear weapons.

The opposition to the war in Iraq was very strong in Japan. And the government just ignored the public will, which was against participation.

This was true in every country. There was an international poll last December by Gallup, the major polling organization, in which many countries were polled around the world on Iraq. The main question was, “Would you support a war fought by the United States and its allies without U.N. authorization?” Allies means Britain, so the question really was, “Would you support a U.S./British war without U.N. authorization,” which is, of course, what they did. The highest figure they got anywhere, I think, was 11% in Romania. In most countries, it was very low. In fact, even when they asked, “with U.N. authorization,” it was also pretty low. But without U.N. authorization, namely the war that was fought, it was almost nothing. That wasn’t reported in the United States.

How do you see things in Japan? Do you have a sense of where Japan is headed?

I hate to talk about Japan. You people know a lot more about it than I do. It’s pretty clear from observing from a distance that there’s a kind of a split developing. The policy is moving in a rightward, militaristic direction. On the other hand, the population is clearly much more open and free than it was before. For example, discussions like this five or ten years ago in Japan would have been very unlikely.

I should say, I’ve been visiting Japan for some 40 years now. I travel in a lot of countries, and until recently it was the only country in the world where I was never asked to give political talks, or have political interviews. I had plenty of interviews, but they were on professional topics, and I gave professional talks and so on. That’s changed a lot in the last couple of years. That’s what it looks like to me in one direction.

On the other hand, if you look at policies, it’s going in the other direction. It’s just like the United States. The United States is much more open than it was a couple of years ago. There are huge audiences for talks and books, tremendous demand and so on. On the other hand, policy is shifting so far to the right that positions that were regarded as outlandish a couple of years ago are right in the middle of the spectrum today.

The public opposition, in the form of demonstrations and things like that, was a bit slow to develop in Japan. But, when it did develop it was quite strong, historically, very large numbers.

I wouldn’t say that it was slow [to develop]. I think we have a funny perspective when we say that. If you go back, say, to the Vietnam War, there were finally big demonstrations of protest, but that was after about six or seven years of war. There was so little protest that people don’t even remember that the U.S. attacked South Vietnam in 1962. That’s when Kennedy sent the U.S. Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam. That’s when they started carrying out chemical warfare programs to destroy food crops, started rounding up millions of people in strategic hamlets, essentially concentration camps. There was no protest. It was five or six years later that protest became substantial.

The same on other issues. There was a huge anti-nuclear movement in the United States, I think it was [supported by] about 75% of the population in the early 80’s, but that was after decades and decades of major threats of nuclear war. We just learned last October what may be one of the most startling discoveries in history. It was right in the middle of all the fuss about attacking Iraq, and the national security strategy. I don’t know if this was reported in Japan. There was a meeting in Havana for the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with key decisionmakers from the United States, Russia and Cuba. Robert McNamara and others participated.

They knew at the time, in 1962, that the Missile Crisis was, as [the historian] Arthur Schlesinger described it, “the most dangerous moment in human history.” They knew that. It was very close. But, they didn’t know how close it was. New information was revealed at the last meeting. It turned out that there were Russian submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes, and they were under attack by U.S. destroyers. Two of the submarine commanders authorized shooting nuclear-tipped torpedoes, which would have led to a nuclear response, and we wouldn’t be talking.

One Russian submarine commander countermanded the order. That’s how close it was. This was learned last October. And that is not the only case. There have been case after case, some of them very dangerous.

One last question, which is often asked at screenings of the film: How do you maintain your sense of optimism amidst all these unfolding events?

One thing is what we’ve been talking about. The populations of the world, in my opinion at least, are becoming much more civilized. They’re much more concerned about things. They’re looking into issues seriously, acting on them. There are very important developments in the world which we haven’t discussed: the international opposition to the war in Iraq is completely without precedent. There has never, in the history of Europe and the United States at least, been such massive protest against a war before it was launched. It takes years usually.

The global justice movements are, again, without precedent. They’re international, there’s a lot of international solidarity, North/South solidarity. They’re dedicated to serious issues. They’re working hard. These are very promising developments.

Basically they’re two trajectories in the world. There’s one towards war, destruction, repression, demolition of progressive achievements and so on. That’s very clear. There’s another that’s going quite in the opposite direction, and it’s just a question of which one will prevail. We’re not going to have a lot of time to answer that question. The survival of the species is a fragile matter at this point. Somebody, again, observing this from Mars would not put very high odds on human survival.

So, it’s up to us to make it happen. Thank you, I appreciate your time.