In his new book, “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance,” intellectual activist Noam Chomsky argues that U.S. policy — the militarization of space, the ballistic-missile defense program, unilateralism, the dismantling of international agreements, and the response to the Iraqi crisis — cohere in a drive for hegemony that ultimately threatens our survival.
Chomsky was online Wednesday, Nov. 26 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss his book and the risks of recents trends in American foreign policy.
Chomsky is the author of numerous political works, from “American Power and the New Mandarins” in the 1960s to “9-11” in 2001. A professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, he lives outside Boston, Mass.
The transcript follows.
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Washington, D.C.: I’m asking you this question sincerely: Why don’t you direct your hatred of George Bush toward someone more worthy of such venom, such as Osama bin Laden?
Noam Chomsky: I don’t recall having expressed any hatred for George Bush, though I have quoted people who expressed real fury at what he has done, and even compared him to the Japanese fascists who bombed Pearl Harbor: historian Arthur Schlesinger in this case. If what you mean is that I have criticized Bush’s policies more than Osama’s, that’s because I take for granted, like everyone else, that Osama bin Laden is a murderous thug, who the current incumbents in Washington should never have supported through the 1980s, and who should be apprehended and tried for his crimes right now — as I’ve written — and don’t see any point reiterating what 100% of us believe about him. But I am a citizen of the US, and therefore share responsibility for US government policies, and assume that one of the duties of citizenship is to live up to that responsibility — by criticizing policies one thinks are wrong, for example
Washington, D.C.: While I may agree with you that the United States is interested in preserving the dominant paradigms within society (i.e. capitalism, positivism, functionalism), it seems too simplistic to say that the U.S. foreign policy is unilaterally trying to secure its own hegemonic status. I believe the recent events are just a phase and most foreign policy analysts (including the President) know that if we cannot get back on track with international agreements and foreign cooperation then our own way of life is in jeopardy. Is it always fair to portray the United States as the rogue hegemony in an integrated world that is constantly trying to balance global economic and physical security?
Noam Chomsky: I basically agree (though I might differ with you about the nature of the “dominant paradigms”), but do not understand why you are directing the question to me. That the current US administration has declared that it will unilaterally act to secure its hegemonic status, now and for the indefinite future, is not seriously in question. That’s the way the National Security Strategy of Sept. 2002 was interpreted at once, e.g., in the major establishment journal Foreign Affairs. It was not only stated clearly, but accompanied by “exemplary actions” to make it clear that the goal was intended seriously. But is this a permanent commitment? I don’t know anyone who believes that. I’ve certainly never suggested it. The reason why I write, speak, and engage in other activism about these matters is to seek policy changes, which presuppposes that they can be changed, exactly as you assume. I don’t see what issue you are raising.
As for US policies over the past (however long you like), it’s surely unfair to describe them as you put it, but I never have, so can’t really comment.
Jamaica, N.Y.: Sir, it is an honor to speak with you today, what is your view on the statement that since we are the sole super-power, the U.S. has an obligation,not only to itself for protection, but to the international community to act, even when our allies are unwilling or unable, case in point Iraq, though the U.S. was never in direct danger, our allies in the Middle East were. Thank you sir.
Noam Chomsky: The assumption behind your question is that the US is entitled to act in the name of the international community, to defend their interests. One could debate this question, but it doesn’t seem relevant. Take your example. The US went to war against the objection of an overwhelming majority of the international community. In the international Gallup polls of last December, there was hardly a country where support for the US-UK unilateral attack reached 10%. In fact, opposition was entirely without historical precedent. And remains so. How, in that case, can we even raise the question of the obligation of the US to act in the interests of the international community? Are we to assume that WE know the interests of others, but they don’t? I’m sure you don’t mean that.
Greenbelt, Md.: Regarding proliferation of WMD, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons — there are over 190 countries in the World.
In your opinion, is every one of these countries “entitled” to produce (or buy) and stockpile such weapons?
If so, please explain how such proliferation is in the interest of the U.S. (or the World).
If not, please explain what you consider to be legitimate criteria to separate the “haves” from the “have nots” — and how you would envision enforcement of same, given that there is not and never will be worldwide commonality of opinion on this subject.
Noam Chomsky: I’ll assume that by “weapons” in your question you mean “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD).
If so, then I agree with the 1970 non-proliferation treaty, that no country has the right to produce (etc.) nuclear weapons, and that the current nuclear powers have been obligated since 1970 to make “good faith” efforts to rid the world of them. As for other WMD, I agree with international protocols banning them, and believe that they should be enforced. That is why I have, for example, strongly opposed the steps taken by the Bush administration to undermine such protocols, some going back to the 1920s, others involving new and extremely hazardous developments, such as the intention to militarize space, unilaterally, and over the objections of virtually every other country — now extended to the official plan to move on from “control” of space to “ownership” of space, with programs that are a serious threat to human survival.
I think this answers your following questions as well.
Kabul, Afghanistan: I’m an American working in Kabul so I’d like your comments that might be specific to US attempts at nation-building here, of which I am a small part. Thanks.
Noam Chomsky: Reminds me of a question that was once posed to Mahatma Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” He’s supposed to have answered: “I think it would be a good idea.”
Same here. US attempts at nation-building would be a good idea. As you know better than I, they have been extremely meager. It should also be borne in mind that the US (like the Russians, and some others, back to Britain) has an obligation to provide Afghanistan not only with aid, but with reparations. Those who are familiar with the recent history of the current incumbents in Washington, mostly recycled from the Reagan-Bush I administrations, will understand why.
Washington, D.C.: I have been to 50 or so countries in the past three years, and universally (with those with whom I spoke), Clinton is loved and Bush despised. Yet, the 9/11 bombings, given their timing, seemed to be a response to America under the Clinton years. Is it realistic to ask the US to be any more internationalist than we were under Clinton? Was Clinton actually that awful that we deserved 9/11?
Noam Chomsky: Clinton was far from “loved” during his tenure in office. His war in Kosovo, for example, was bitterly condemned over much of the world, even including the most loyal allies, like Israel. The source of the 9-11 bombings is complex. I don’t think it’s as straightforward as you suggest, just as it would wrong to say, simply, that the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 (which came very close to killing tens of thousands of people) was a response to America in the Reagan-Bush years. More complex than that. The current reactions you are hearing around the world are, I suspect, directed to the Bush administration policies of the past 2 years. Bush clearly succeeded in turning his administration into the most feared and disliked, sometimes hated, in US history, and very quickly; after 9-11 there was an enormous wave of worldwide sympathy for the US, which his policies reversed dramatically, as many commentators have pointed out, and as is pretty obvious from the evidence before our eyes. I suspect that when you hear “love” for Clinton, it may be by comparison. Surely there are large parts of the world population among whomere that was far from true at the time, and still isn’t.
Washington, D.C.: Is the solution to the world’s current troubles a stronger and more effective UN? If so, how do we fix it?
Noam Chomsky: I don’t think it’s “the solution,” but it would be an important step forward, I think. We can help construct a more independent and effective UN by supporting it rather than undermining it. Unfortunately, the US has been in the lead in undermining it for many years. Just to take one measure — far from the only one — since the UN fell out of control in the 1960s, with decolonization and reconstruction of the other industrial societies, the US has been far in the lead in Security Council vetoes on a wide range of issues (even resolutions calling on all states to observe international law), Britain second, no one else even close. And we should recognize a truism: the most extreme way to violate a Security Council resolution is to veto it. If Iraq had the veto, they’d have been in violation of no resolutions, of course. That’s only a small part of the story, but I think if government policy shifted more towards public opinion on these matters, the US would shift from a barrier to a stronger and more effective UN to a supporter of it, and it can go well beyond that. How? It would be hard if we were living in a military dictatorship or totalitarian state. But in a society with an unusual legacy of freedom and privilege, we know how to do it: what is missing is will, not means.
Greenbelt, Md.: I presume (correct me if necessary) that you consider the U.N. to be the legitimate enforcer of the banning of WMD (since 1970, as you refer to above). When the U.N. fails to perform such enforcement, do you believe that individual countries must wait until they are under attack before responding, or are there some circumstances where you would find pre-emption justified against a state accumulating illegal WMD?
Noam Chomsky: The US, like other nuclear powers, is bound by treaty to undertake “good faith” efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, and other protocols apply to other WMD. But international treaties and agreements have no enforcement mechanism. For law-abiding states, there is a means to implement banning of WMD: appeal to the Security Council, which has the right to endorse even the use of force to do so. The Security Council refused to endorse the use of force in reaction to Iraq’s only partial adherence to Security Council resolutions, just as it has refused to endorse the use of force against other countries that have violated many more Security Council resolutions than Iraq: Israel, Morocco, Turkey in particular. And these are on serious issues: aggression, “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions (war crimes under US law), and much else. But without Security Council authorization, it would be a crime for any country to act on its own to use force — as the US did in the case of Iraq. As to when violation of international law and institutions (and overwhelming world opinion) might be legitimate, it’s hard to answer. One can imagine all kinds of hypothetical situations, but I’m not familiar with real ones — at least, relevant here.
Arlington, Va.: If I may play devil’s advocate for a moment, why do you believe the current U.S. striving for hegemony (if I’m not misrepresenting your view) is a bad thing?
Noam Chomsky: I don’t believe it: the current administration declares it, openly and brazenly, and proceeds with actions to make it clear to the world that it means what it says. So I join virtually every commentator in believing that they do mean what they say. Is it a good thing? It’s not for you and me to decide. We both know that in the case I presume you have in mind — the invasion of Iraq — there was overwhelming popular opposition worldwide, with few if any historical precedents. So the world apparently thought it was a “bad thing,” overwhelmingly. If you check international Gallup polls at the time when the Bush administration was initiating its bombing of Aghanistan, you’ll find that there was also overwhelming opposition to that, most dramatically in Latin America, which has some experience with Washington’s insistence on hegemony by use of force. We can, if we like, decide that the world is just wrong, and we know best. That’s not without precedent either, but I don’t like the company, and I doubt that you do. But to go back to the beginning: it is not for you and me to decide whether we should unilaterally resort to violence at will.
Richmond, Va.: I can only presume that you read the competition. What are your thoughts on Christopher Hitchen’s arguments for war in his newest book?
Noam Chomsky: I don’t think it would be fair to comment on this or any other book (or article) without going into specifics. No one who even tries to be serious would, in my opinion, criticize some writings without giving explicit quotes and references. I can’t even think of that here, so cannot comment. If you want a general reaction, I did not find it at all convincing.
Washington: What can you tell us about your new book? Certainly, you’ve written a great deal about U.S. foreign policy already; how does the new book add to your thinking?
Noam Chomsky: The new book is mostly about events more recent than those I’ve written about before, and when it returns to earlier events, it is either using new material that has appeared or doing so to place current developments in the historical context in which I think we can properly understand them. I don’t quite know what you mean about adding to my thinking. If you are asking whether it represents some fundamental change of perspective and interpretation of how the world works — including the US, but as made clear there and elsewhere, power systems generally, way back in history — then the answer is that it doesn’t. But I can’t think of very many, if any, books that would mean that condition.
Greenbelt, Md.: Would you support the idea of a standing military, under U.N. control, whose job would be to enforce worldwide treaties banning WMD?
Noam Chomsky: I don’t think anyone supports this. It would require that the proposed standing military eliminate WMD from those countries that have the overwhelming majority of them and are rapidly developing more, primarily the US, secondarily the other nuclear powers, including those that have not signed the non-proliferation treaty, like Israel and Pakistan. I don’t think anyone would propose that, but that is what your suggestion amounts to, if taken seriously.
Gothenburg, Sweden: You have said that the institutions in the US needs to be changed. Which institutions do you have in mind and how do they need to be changed?
Do you think something will happen soon on this front? I am asking because a recent survey suggested that a majority of the American people are in favour of changes in the political system, so it seems to have mainstream appeal.
Noam Chomsky: Not just the US, but everywhere. There is no place in the world that does not have structures of authority and domination that are (in my view) illegitimate, and that should be dismantled in the interests of creating a more free and just society. Furthermore, I expect that to be true forever; it’s part of the “human condition”.
Beyond that, we have to turn to specifics. Take the most powerful institutions in the world: great powers and corporations. I think they are fundamentally illegitimate, and should be placed under democratic control. And I’m including the states here — democratic control is substantially form, not substance, when there are vast internal inequities of wealth and power. The leading American social philosopher of the last century, John Dewey, “as American as apple pie,” was not wrong when he described politics as the shadow cast over society by big business, and when he discussed the reasons for that. And we should, I think, go far beyond what he said. But now we are moving into a domain that requires serious thought and discussion.
As for the population, it’s a complicated matter. An overwhelming majority feel that the political system does not respond to their interests, and that elections are some kind of game among the powerful in which they scarcely participate, except maybe formally. And opposition to corporate power is also far-reaching. Whether this will translate into substantial popular movements to bring about change — as in past history of the US and others, and elsewhere in the world today — there isn’t much point speculating. For people concerned about the matters, the question is one of action, not speculation about what we cannot know.
Jamaica, N.Y.: If not the United States, who should pick up the gauntlet and lead the world? There will always be a country that is above the rest. Should it not be the United States, we do encurage democracy and the freedom to earn an equal wage, it is not like Ancient Rome, or Germany, we DO promote freedom.
Noam Chomsky: No one should do so, in my opinion. The world is far better off with power diffused. I think that’s true internal to societies as well. I wish it were true that US power was used to “encourage democracy and the freedom to earn an equal wage” and to “promote freedom.” I’m afraid that belief will not stand up to investigation. I’ve explained why in detail in print, including current books, as have innumerable others, but can’t try to elaborate here. But even if it were true, I would reject the premise, just as I would reject the internal analogue. If some power system within the US claimed the right to “lead the country,” we’d all oppose it, and rightly, no matter what they professed.
Washington, D.C.: You’re generally known as a critic of American foreign policy, but can you identify any elements of U.S. policy that you have found praiseworthy, either under the current president or the past few administrations?
Noam Chomsky: There are innumerable examples. I’m in favor of significant foreign aid, for example, including the pittance that now exists (the worst record in the industrial world). But think it should go far beyond. I think it’s perfectly reasonable even to use force, though under quite narrow conditions: in self-defense, maybe in some other cases, though strong arguments have to be given. There were elements of the Alliance for Progress that seemed to me worthwhile, though unfortunately they were overwhelmed by others. And we could go on and on. But I should say that I don’t think it’s the right question, about the US or anyone else. Our role, as citizens of a free society, is not to give grades for performance, but to change and improve what we think is wrong. There will always be plenty of people happy to sing praises to themselves, and I don’t see a lot of point in joining them.
Greenbelt, Md.: I think the questioner from Arlington, VA implies that there is an argument to be made that U.S. hegemony could be a good thing — and you are being invited to argue the other side. Why not U.S. hegemony?
Noam Chomsky: I already answered. Maybe you mean something more, but I’m not sure what.
The answer was, of course, wholly inadequate. But that’s inevitable in this format.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Dr. Chomsky, regarding the recent furor over the FCC’s new relaxed media ownership regulations, what do you believe caused the massive public backlash against these changes? Certainly it is abnormal for an issue of this sort to capture such a magnitude of public attention.
Noam Chomsky: I presume — at least hope — that the public backlash was a recognition that the relaxed media ownership rules constitute a serious attack against effective free expression. And I stress “effective.” A country can have very high standards of protection for free expression (as the US has had, at least since the 1960s, probably uniquely in the world) and still have very limited EFFECTIVE free expression, because of concentration of power over what can reach the public. The new proposals would reduce effective free expression, certainly the foundation of any society that pretends to be democratic.
Stony Brook, N.Y.: What steps might the US to ‘de-hegemonize’ itself, considering that the most obvious steps away from coercive, unilateral military policy may well reinforce the U.S.’s role as hegemonic political-economic leader?
Noam Chomsky: I don’t see why either alternative is necessary. It’s possible to support diffusion of power and control in all domains. Incidentally, in the economic domain US leadership is by no means so straightforward. For 30 years, the world has been economically “tripolar,” with three major centers. Europe is economically on a par with the US, and Northeast Asia is now the most dynamic economic region in the world, with GDP far beyond the US and far more control over foreign exchange reserves. But I don’t thik the world should be “tripolar” either. In fact,we should work to diffuse power much more generally, at home as well. Anyway, I see no principled contradiction between the alternatives you pose.
Washington, D.C.: How can you seriously promote the dismantling of “great powers and corporations”? Power abhors a vacuum, and unless you want us to turn into a society of small, independent communes, current great powers or corporations would merely be replaced by other conceptions of power and corporation. The lessons learned from the failed Soviet experiment should be evidence enough for the fallacy of this belief.
Noam Chomsky: The Soviet experiment was one of highly concentrated power, from the start, when Lenin and Trotsky moved quickly to destroy the democratic, socialist, and participatory elements of the pre-takeover period. It remained so. So I don’t see the relevance. Could unaccountable private tyrannies be dismantled and placed under popular control in the US? I’ve never seen an argument to the contrary. There many very specific proposals as to how a more democratic economy could run: to mention just one example, the proposals of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel (together and separately) about “participatory economics,” which you can find in many books. And there are plenty of others. Just how far freedom and democracy can go, we don’t know, but I know of no reason to suppose that we’ve hit some limit.
Lyme, Conn.: What role do you believe the United Nations could have in establishing order amongst nations? Will it ever be possible, and should it ever be possible, that the United Nations obtain greater powers in settling international disputes? If you do not see the United Nations as a possible solution, where do you forsee international strife being settled?
Noam Chomsky: Nothing much to add to what I said before.
Alexandria, Va.: Why did you sign an MIT petition calling for MIT to boycott Israeli investments, and then give an interview in which you state that you opposed such investment boycotts?
What was or is your position on the proposal by some MIT faculty that MIT should boycott Israeli investments?
Noam Chomsky: As is well known in Cambridge, of anyone involved, I was the most outspoken opponent of the petition calling for divestment, and in fact refused to sign until it was substantially changed, along lines that you can read if you are interested. The “divestment” part was reduced to three entirely meaningless words, which had nothing to do with the main thrust of the petition. I thought that the three meaningless words should also be deleted, but as everyone concerned with human rights knows, one constantly signs petitions without agreeing with every single word, just the main thrust, as I do in this cae. I don’t know what interview you are referring to, but there are many — before and after — in which I’ve explained my opinion about all of this, and it is well known among those who are concerned with these matters, and has been for years. On your last question, as noted, I was and remain strongly opposed, without exception — at least if I undertand what the question means. How does one “boycott Israeli investments”?
Harrisburg, Pa.: You are very critical of our current politices. If you could change United States foreign and military policy, what would you make as our primary objectives? Should we have a role in providing economic assistance that may have mutual benefits and should we engage in military operations that prevent genocide?
Noam Chomsky: We should surely provide economic assistance that has benefits (I don’t know why “mutual” enters). And there is no shortage of examples. To take just one, at least 3000 children die every day in Africa from easily preventable diseases, and with funding so slight that we wouldn’t even notice it, we could easily end that catastrophe. As for preventing genocide, yes, I think it would be legitimate to use force to do so, and I even know of a few cases. In the post-World War II period there are two real examples that might qualify: India’s invasion of East Pakistan and Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. In both cases, the US strenuously opposed the actions to terminate huge atrocities, and punished India (and particularly Vietnam) for doing so. I don’t know of any cases remotely comparable. If you have Kosovo in mind, I’d urge that you look at the massive Western documentation on the topic, which is quite decisive. You can find some reviews in books of mine, including the most recent one (“Hegemony or Survival”), but you should not take it on faith, but check the original sources, which is not hard.
Washington, D.C.: Your writings and talks are generally very serious affairs. Do you have a humorous side? What sorts of things genuinely make you laugh?
Noam Chomsky: Playing with my grandchildren? Lots more. Frankly, I don’t like to respond to personal questions. I’m a private person. I don’t think it’s anyone’s business, apart from friends and family
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: As a Canadian I sometimes feel as though my nation is crawling into bed with a known rapist, at the cost of our sovereignty, our identity and our dignity. Is there any way for Canada to extract itself from its already deep relationship or to resist becoming further under the fold of our incredibly powerful neighbor to the south? Would stronger ties with Europe or anyone else be more beneficial in the long run?
Noam Chomsky: I hesitate to give advice to others, but Canada surely has options, including those you mention. It’s not Haiti. As in other cases discussed here, the issue is will, not opportunity.
Washington, D.C.: Is the Geneva Plan a step in the right direction? Is there any chance that public pressure in Israel and among the Palestinians and internationally can create momentum to for adoption of some variant?
Noam Chomsky: The Geneva accords seem to me a considerable improvement over the informal Taba negotiations (terminated by the Barak government in January 2001), and they were a very substantial step forward beyond the impossible Camp David proposals. I think they do present a very serious basis for negotiation towards a peaceful diplomatic settlement reflecting the overwhelming international consensus of the past almost 30 years, which I’m sorry to say has been unilaterally blocked by the US. That’s what should concern us, including the current manifestations of that traditional policy.
Washington, D.C.: Will you be speaking in Washington, D.C. any time soon?
Noam Chomsky: Not in the near future — which for me, means about 2 years — unless something comes up; sometimes happens.
Los Angeles, Calif.: While you may not want to believe it, the majority of Americans, including myself, believe that the decisions being made by President Bush regarding Iraq, missile defense, proactive defense against terrorism, etc. is exactly what we need to defend our country and values. These are seen as positives, not negatives. In fact, I believe your ideas threaten our survival.
Noam Chomsky: Interested to hear your views, but since there is no argument, and no question, cannot go beyond that.
Washington, D.C.: So do you do linguistics any more, or are you pretty much done with that?
Noam Chomsky: All the time. And as far ahead as I can imagine
Silver Spring, Md.: It appears pretty evident that U.S. foreign policy and its imperialistic dominance over the world has in fact threatened our own survival. U.S. embassy bombings, international protests, and 9/11 are clearly examples that support your argument. The Bush administration has supported a military response, which has increased fear and risks of further attacks against Americans. It would appear obvious that the successful road to securing our nation would involve reconsideration and revision of current U.S. policies. Which approach and/or policies would you argue most vital in securing Americans (both civilians and our young soldiers) from further attacks?
Noam Chomsky: As you know, I basically agree. The general question is too broad to try to answer. To take just Iraq, I think the answer is pretty straightforward. US policy should adopt general public opinion. Since April, the majority of Americans have called for the UN to take the lead in dealing with the effects of the invasion. There’s little doubt that world public opinion agrees, probably overwhelmingly. What about Iraq? It’s hard to judge the opinions of people under military occupation, but there have been credible polls, mostly US-run or -backed. The most recent show that by about 5-1, Iraqis regard the US-UK forces as an occupying not a liberating force, and by 5-3 want them to leave — which is remarkable, because even those strongly opposed to the invasion recognize that in the conditions to which it led, the resulting security consequences could be catastrophic. The most popular foreign leader by far is French President Chirac, the very symbol of opposition to the invasion, far above Bush or Blair. Other polls that I now of are consistent.
If Washington is willing to give up the goal of controlling Iraq, with some democratic forms if possible, then there is a way out: a pretty straightforward one.
Beyond that, those who are concerned with the safety and security of Americans will, obviously, seek to understand the source of the threats against them. That means they must reject the absurd and outlandish idea that to explain is to justify — which, I’m afraid, one constantly reads. As to where that inquiry will lead — I’ve written about what I think, but others have to figure it out for themselves.
Wheaton, Md.: It seems that the same parties throughout the world who resent the power and actions of the U.S. are also the same people who support the complete destruction of Israel and the brutal treatment of Kurds, Sudanese and other minorities under Arab occupation. Do they really fear U.S. hegemony, or do they just fear democracy?
Noam Chomsky: I don’t agree with that at all. In Europe, for example, there is overwhelming opposition to US policy, and virtually no support for destruction of Israel. Same is true in most of the world. As for “brutal treatment of Kurds,” etc., it would be important to clarify what you have in mind. In the 1990s, for example, by far the most brutal treatment of Kurds was in Southeastern Turkey, where millions were driven from their homes and tens of thousands killed, with every barbaric form of torture and terror you can dream of. These were some of the worst crimes of the grisly 1990s. The responsibility traced straight back to Washington, which provided 80% of the arms and crucial diplomatic and other support. In the single year 1997, Clinton sent more arms to Turkey than the combined total for the entire cold war period up to the onset of the campaign of “state terror” — as it is rightly called by Turkish dissidents, even sometimes by government ministers. If you mean the Kurds in Iraq, then the US record is quite mixed. Through the 1980s, when they suffered the worst atrocities at the hands of Saddam Hussein (Halabja, al-Anfal, etc.), Saddam was backed by Washington, including those now in office again or their immmediate descendants, and that support continued long after his worst crimes against the Kurds, and long after the war with Iran was over. The official reasons were quite ugly. Later policies changed, for reasons having to do with power interests, but it remains quite mixed. E.g., the US (and the rest of the world) has refused to provide badly needed medical assistance to the victims of the atrocious gas attacks that they basically supported. We can continue with others.
If you check the record, I think you will find that your assumptions cannot be sustained. I urge that you look into it.
San Diego, Calif.: Mr. Chomsky,
Thomas Friedman from the New York Times was on Hardball last night and eluded to an interesting poll. It was a Pew survey conducted in Brazil that said over 50 percent of Brazilians were disappointed that the Iraqi military had not put up a better fight against the U.S.
Have we made the world into a David vs. Goliath scenario? And if so, is there a way to play down the fact that we are the only superpower left, in order to facilitate better relations with the world? I guess what I am asking is, will it eventually be us against the world?
Why can’t we all just get along? Ha ha, right.
Noam Chomsky: I didn’t hear him, and haven’t seen the poll. I suggest that you have a careful look. Interpreting polls requires considerable care.
However, the reaction would hardly be surprising. There is tremendous resentment of US power among those who have experienced its use. Few Brazilians, for example, have forgotten events that we prefer to sweep under the rug: for example, the fact that the last time Brazil had a mildly populist President, the US supported (in fact, substantially initiated) a military coup that established a vicious neo-Nazi National Security State, and continued to support it until it was overthrown internally. And that’s unfortunately a very familiar pattern, as known very well South of the border. History looks very different from the wrong end of the guns.
What should we do? First, face the past honestly, and understand what we have done and are doing, and why people have the attitudes they do. Then, if their grievances are legitimate, devote ourselves to responding to them. As for the present and future, I’ve already given some indication of what I think we should do, and there’s a lot more in print.
Hamilton, Ontario: Dr. Chomsky, you have said many times that you are almost completely shunned by the mainstream U.S. media, and yet here you are, participating in an online discussion at the invitation (I assume) of the Washington Post. How do you explain coverage such as this when the Propaganda Model predicts virtually nothing of this sort and magnitude occurring?
Noam Chomsky: This isn’t the first time I’ve been on this forum, and it’s not the only one. There is a radical difference between exposure in the US media and in other similar societies (the rest of the English-speaking world, for example); not only for me, but for anyone who does not accept “our conformist subservience to those in power” (I’m quoting the distinguished American scholar Hans Morgenthau, the founder of modern international relations theory, referring to American intellectuals). That’s worldwide pattern, and goes back to the origins of recorded history. I’ve written about it, including the rare but very important exceptions: there are countries where the courage and integrity of intellectuals should put us to shame, Turkey for example, something I’ve also written about. I think you are misreading the “propaganda model”. It does not suggest — in fact, it strongly denies — that the US is a totalitarian society where conformity is rigidly enforced, and we cite plenty of examples to the contrary in the joint book to which you are referring, and elsewhere.
Alexandria, Va.: Some years ago during the Faurisson matter you were quoted in the New York Times as saying that personally you believed that the Holocaust had occurred.
Are you comfortable stating that the Holocaust occurred without qualifying it with an “I belive”?
Do you believe that the question of whether or not the Holocaust occurred is one over which reasonable minds can differ?
Noam Chomsky: I don’t recall anything that idiotic in the New York Times, and if there was such a statement, it’s slanderous, because it suggests that there is some possibility to the contrary. Anyone who’s looked at what I’ve written, since my first published political writings almost 40 years ago, knows that any such suggestion is about on a par with my saying that I read a statement in the NY Times that you are personally opposed to torture of children.
I’m comfortable with saying exactly what I wrote almost 40 years ago, and have often repeated: the Holocaust was the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history, and we lose our humanity if we even agree to enter into debate with those who try to deny Nazi crimes. Of course, every factual statement — e.g., that the moon is not made out of green cheese — has an implicit “I believe” before it. That’s what it means for a statement to be empirical — and if we are serious about it, the conclusions extend even to a large part of mathematics. But that’s utterly irrelevant here.
Denver, Colo.: Noam: I’ve read your recent statement that the war in Iraq isn’t like Vietnam which was different for historical reasons: but it sure feels like deja vu all over again when I read the media. There’s exactly the same range of “acceptable debate” today — from the liberals who say “I didn’t support the invasion, but we’re there now and we can’t cut and run, we have to win,” to the right-wingers who argue that the invasion was the completely justified and blame the critics for undermining morale. All these arguments pre-suppose that we have the right to invade in the first place and once we’re there, to remain as long as “necessary.”
How is this any different from the “official” debate in the ’60s which completely ignored the position of the anti-war movement, that the war was immoral, not too costly to us, and ought to be stopped?!
We can confidently expect that once again, the anti-war movement will be blamed — this time for “losing Iraq.”
Noam Chomsky: The official debate over Vietnam was as you describe: the crucial facts have never been allowed into the debate: specifically, the fact — which should hardly be in doubt –that the US attacked South Vietnam, certainly by 1962, and virtually destroyed it, then extending the attack to the rest of Indochina. In the case of Iraq, the official debate is much broader. The invasion was denounced in very harsh terms in the mainstream. I’ve already quoted Arthur Schlesinger, and it’s easy to elaborate. So the debates are different. But I recognize the similarities that you point out too, and I think we should attend to them carefully, as you suggest.
Greenfield, Mass.: Do you agree that hegemony abroad ultimately necessitates authoritarianism at home, and given current trends, is a phase of a new American fascism inevitable or already existent?
Noam Chomsky: It’s not impossible, though I don’t think the word “necessary” is in order — in human affairs generally. You might be interested in a current article by the distinguished international law specialist Richard Falk on what he calls “global fascism”.
But we don’t have to allow any such thing to happen, here or abroad.
Buenos Aires, Argentina: Professor Chomsky, It is an honor to participate in this debate regarding your thoughts. Many years ago we met through an Argentinean common friend Maria Fra, who was at the Kennedy School at that time. I do agree with most of your statements regarding the war on Iraq. But something that for many foreigners as me, who love the US and your Democracy, frightens us is this new trend towards a limitation to your liberties and freedom that we can see recently. Including the USA Patriot Act, and other measures taken by your Administration. I was very much upset with the embarrassing situation occurred at JFK International when the Chilean Foreign Minister Dr. Soledad Alvear was interrogated when she went to the General Assembly of the UN in NYC, in open violation of the Vienna Convention on International Diplomatic Missions. Something similar happened with Cardinal Jorge Mejia, the Director of the Vatican Archives and Library. If this incidents involved high ranking officials of States that have diplomatic ties with the USA what can expect simple a tourist who has all their passports and documents in order according with existing regulations. Furthermore I do have the idea that these people of the Project for a New American Century are totalitarian, and make me fear that certain kind of Big Brother; a total Orwellian scenario will be imposed in your wonderful country. This will mean a decline of all your institutions and the destruction of your founding fathers legacy. John Adams said the USA should be under the empire of law and not men, now we see just the opposite.
Noam Chomsky: Thanks for your letter, and regard to our common friend.
You are right to be concerned with these matters, and there are many others like them. What’s happening in Guantanomy is an utter disgrace. In my recent book “Hegemony or Survival,” I quote Winston Churchill’s thoughts about the methods now being adopted the administration: that the are “odious” and the foundation of every totalitarian government, whether Nazi or Communist (I’m not using quotes only because that’s from memory, but it’s virtually exact). Nevertheless, one should not exaggerate. What’s happening here now is bad enough, but it is nothing like what has happened in the past, even the quite recent past (most strikingly, the COINTELPRO operations that went on for 15 years before they were banned by the Courts),or certainly Wilson’s Red Scare. And they are not remotely like what happens in much of the rest of the world. Ther is a very strong commitment on the part of the public to preserve the legacy of freedom that was won with hard struggle over centuries — it wasn’t a gift from above. And though events of the kind you mention, and much worse ones, do take place, and should be stopped by an aroused public, the fact is that for those who have even a limited share of privilege — which is a very large majority in a rich country — there are freedoms that are unusual, by world standards. Nothing to be complacent about, but worth keeping in mind.