On the US and the Middle East

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Hawzheen O. Kareem

Komal Newspaper, January 2, 2004

– As an opponent to USA policies, which political wing you belong to?

If you mean Democrat or Republican, the answer is: Neither. It has often been pointed out by political scientists that the US is basically a one-party state — the business party. with two factions, Democrats and Republicans. Most of the population seems to agree. A very high percentage, sometimes passing 80%, believe that the government serves “the few and the special interests,” not “the people.” In the contested 2000 election, about 75% regarded it as mostly a farce having nothing to do with them, a game played by rich contributors, party bosses, and the public relations industry, which trained candidates to say mostly meaningless things that might pick up some votes. This was BEFORE the actual election, with the accusations of fraud and selection of Bush with a minority of the popular vote.
I tend to agree with the majority of the population on these matters, and believe there is a significant task ahead to create a more democratic culture, in which elections are far more meaningful and there is also meaningful ongoing political participation by the general population. More serious political scientists in the mainstream describe the US not as a “democracy” but as a “polyarchy”: a system of elite decision and periodic public ratification. There is surely much truth to the conclusion of the leading American social philosopher of the 20th century, John Dewey, whose main work was on democracy, that until there is democratic control of the primary economic institutions, politics will be “the shadow cast on society by big business.”

– What are the goals of the American existence in the Iraq and Middle East?

The primary goal, uncontroversially, is to control the immense energy reserves of the Persian Gulf region, Iraq included. That has been a prime concern of the Western industrial powers since the time when Iraq was created by the British, to ensure that Iraqi oil reserves would be in British hands and the newly-created state of Iraq would be barred from free access to the Gulf. At that time the US was not a leading actor in world affairs. But after World War II, the US was by far the dominant world power, and control of Middle East energy reserves became a leading foreign policy goal, as it had been for its predecessors. In the 1940s, US planners recognized that (in their words) Gulf energy resources are “a stupendous source of strategic power” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” Naturally, they intended to control it — though for many years they did not make much use of it themselves, and in the future, according to US intelligence, the US itself will rely on more stable Atlantic Basin resources (West Africa and the Western hemisphere). Nevertheless, it remains a very high priority to control the Gulf resources, which are expected to provide 2/3 of world energy needs for some time to come. Quite apart from yielding “profits beyond the dreams of avarice,” as one leading history of the oil industry puts the matter, the region still remains “a stupendous source of strategic power,” a lever of world control. Control over Gulf energy reserves provides “veto power” over the actions of rivals, as the leading planner George Kennan pointed out half a century ago. Europe and Asia understand very well, and have long been seeking independent access to energy resources. Much of the jockeying for power in the Middle East and Central Asia has to do with these issues. The populations of the region are regarded as incidental, as long as they are passive and obedient. Few know this as well as the Kurds, at least if they remember their own history.
US planners surely intend to establish a client state in Iraq, with democratic forms if that is possible, if only for propaganda purposes. But Iraq is to be what the British, when they ran the region, called an “Arab facade,” with British power in the background if the country seeks too much independence. That is a familiar part of the history of the region for the past century. It is also the way the US has run it’s own domains in the Western hemisphere for a century. There is no indication whatsoever of any miraculous change. The US occupying forces have imposed on Iraq an economic program that no sovereign country would ever accept: it virtually guarantees that the Iraqi economy will be taken over by Western (mostly US) multinational corporations and banks. It is a policy that has been disastrous for the countries on which it has been imposed; in fact, such policies are a prime reason for the current sharp difference between today’s wealthy countries and their former colonies. There is, of course, always a domestic sector that enriches itself by collaborating in running the “facade.” So far, the oil industry has been excluded from foreign takeover, because that would be too blatant. But it is likely to follow, when attention turns elsewhere. Furthermore, Washington has already announced that it intends to impose a “status of forces agreement” that will grant the US the right to maintain military forces in Iraq and, crucially, military bases, the first stable US military bases right at the heart of the world’s major energy reserves.

– As an expert in American history and policy is it suitable for Kurds to put their hope and trust completely in American project in Iraq?

You know better than I the famous Kurdish saying about putting trust in anyone. It holds for others as well, but Kurds familiar with their own history need no reminders of how they were sold out by the US in 1975, left to be massacred by the US client state in Iran, and how the people who are now in charge in Washington fully supported Saddam Hussein right through his worst atrocities and long after the war with Iran was over, for reasons that the Bush I administration declared quite openly: its responsibility to support US exporters, though they added the usual rhetoric about how supporting their friend Saddam would contribute to human rights and “stability.” These same people — now back in power in Washington — also supported Saddam when he crushed the 1991 uprising that might have overthrown the tyrant, and again explained why. One can read in the New York Times that the “best of all worlds” for the US would be an “iron-fisted military junta” that would rule Iraq just the way Saddam did, and that Saddam offers more hope for Iraq’s “stability” than those who seek to overthrow him. They now pretend to be outraged by the mass graves in the South and the Halabja atrocities, but that is pure and transparent fraud, as we can see by looking at how they acted when the atrocities occurred. Of course they knew all about them, but did not care. And with all the later pretense about the Halabja massacre, how much medical aid have they provided for the victims over the past decade? Furthermore, this has nothing particular to do with the United States. That is, unfortunately, the standard way in which power systems operate, secure in the knowledge that the intellectual classes at home will construct a suitable cover of high ideals. That has even been true of the worst mass murderers: Hitler, the Japanese fascists, and for that matter Saddam Hussein.
For the weak to put their trust in systems of power is simply to ask for catastrophe. They may choose to cooperate with powerful states, but if so, they should do so without illusions. And again, no one knows this better than the Kurds, not just those in Iraq but in Turkey and elsewhere.

– USA did not found mass destruction weapons in Iraq and it is now talking in realizing democracy in Middle East, will this project be successful, and will that democracy be real one?

Having failed to discover weapons of mass destruction, Washington shifted its propaganda to “establishing democracy.” That flatly refutes their earlier claim that the “only question” was whether Saddam would disarm. But with a sufficiently obedient intellectual class, and loyal media, the farce can proceed untroubled. To evaluate the new propaganda claim, a rational person would ask how those who know proclaim their “yearning for democracy” have in fact acted, and act today, when their interests are at stake. I will not run through the record, but those who are interested in evaluating these claims should certainly do so. They will discover that “democracy” is tolerated, but only when it is a “top-down form of democracy” in which elites who collaborate with US business and state interests retain control — I happen to be quoting from one of the leading authorities on Latin American democracy, who writes as an insider, having served in the “democracy enhancement” programs of the Reagan administration, which devastated Central America, and left a trail of horror in the Middle East and southern Africa as well. Furthermore, the same policies are pursued today, without the slightest change. Is the US bringing democracy to Uzbekistan? Or to Equatorial Guinea, also ruled by a monster comparable to Saddam Hussein, but warmly welcomed by the Bush White House because he sits on a very large pool of oil. Take Paul Wolfowitz, described by the propaganda system as the leading “visionary” seeking democracy, whose “heart bleeds” for the suffering of poor Muslims. Presumably that explains why he was one of the leading apologists for General Suharto of Indonesia, one of the great mass murderers and torturers of the modern era, and continued to praise him well into 1997, just before he was overthrown by an internal revolt. It is all too easy to continue. For the rich and powerful, illusions about themselves are satisfying and convenient. Many find it quite pleasant to lavish praise on themselves, a major role of intellectuals, throughout history. For the weak and defenseless, faith in illusions is not a wise course — as the victims of centuries of imperial practice should certainly understand.

– Is the current wars of USA to protect its national security are legitimate? How you consider USA national security?

US national security is threatened only by terror and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — which, sooner or later, are likely to be combined, perhaps with horrifying consequences. US and other intelligence agencies, and independent foreign policy analysts, predicted that the invasion of Iraq would lead to an increase in terror and proliferation of WMD, and their predictions have already been verified. The reasons are obvious. The world dominant power announced its intention to attack anyone it wishes, without credible pretext or international authorization, in the National Security Strategy of September 2002. It then moved at once to undertake an “exemplary action” to demonstrate to the world that it means exactly what it said, invading an important country that it knew of course to be virtually defenseless. Watching this, potential targets do not say: “thank you, please cut my throat.” Rather, they turn to means of deterrence, and sometimes revenge. No one can compete in military force with the US, which spends about as much as the rest of the world combined. But the weak do have weapons: namely, terror and WMD. That is the reason for the near-universal predictions on the part of experts that terror and WMD would be stimulated by the declaration of the National Security Strategy, and by the Iraq invasion. The Bush administration understands this as well as intelligence agencies and independent analysts. They do not prefer to harm US national security and subject the population to severe threats. It is simply not a high priority for them, as compared with others: dominating the world, and pursuing a radical reactionary domestic program aimed at dismantling the progressive legislation of the past century that was designed to protect the general population from the ravages of market systems. They also want a very powerful state: as soon as they took office, they increased government expenditures (relative to the economy) too the highest level since the first time they held power, 20 years earlier, in the Reagan administration levels. But the powerful state they want to nourish is to serve the interests of the rich and privileged, not the general population. And the international and domestic goals, in their eyes, are far more important than security, or even survival. There is nothing novel about that. Again, those who know some history will recognize that political leaders quite often choose the risk of catastrophe in pursuit of power, domination, and wealth.

– To what extent USA seeks the international legitimacy and agreements?

For a long time the US has shown disdain for the Security Council, the World Court, and international law and institutions generally. That is not in the least controversial. But this administration is so extreme in its contempt for international law and institutions that it has even been subjected to unprecedented condemnation by the foreign policy elite. Furthermore, it is all so open and brazen that there is really no need to discuss the topic.

– were UN and other international organizations successful in protecting their independence?

Obviously not. The Bush administration informed the UN a year ago that it could be “relevant” by following US orders, or it could be a debating society (as Colin Powell put it). That continued, and continues today, not just in the case of Iraq. Keeping only to the Middle East, the US has continued its practice of the past 30 years of protecting its client state of Israel by vetoing Security Council resolutions and blocking General Assembly resolutions, and of course by providing the military aid and economic support for its client state to continue its programs of integrating the valuable parts of the West Bank within Israel. That is one of the reasons why the US has been far in the lead in vetoing Security Council resolutions (UK second, no one else even close), since the 1960s, when the UN was beginning to be somewhat independent of US domination as a result of decolonization and the recovery of the industrial powers from the war. It is not of course the only reason. The US also vetoes Security Council resolutions on a host of other issues, including even a call for all states to observe international law — not mentioning the US, though everyone understood to whom it was directed.

– You considered USA as a leader of the terrorists, why? and to what extent could it protect the human values?

I have not called the US “a leader of the terrorists,” but I have documented in detail the long and horrendous record of US terrorist acts and crucial support for the terrorism of its clients. In reviewing this record, I use the official US government definition of the term “terrorism.” But few are willing to use the official definitions, because this is the consequence that follows at once. If you are not convinced, look at the ample documentation — including the history of the Kurds, running right to the present, though the crucial US support for state terror against the Kurds was primarily in Turkey in the 1990s, when Turkey became the leading recipient of US military aid (aside from Israel and Egypt) as it was driving millions of Kurds from the devastated countryside, killing tens of thousands, and carrying out every imaginable kind of barbarism, some of the worst crimes of the terrible 1990s, right near you. I have personally seen some of the results, in the miserable slums of Istanbul to which refugees were driven, in the city walls of Diyarbakir where they attempt to survive, and elsewhere. But surely you must know all of that, right next door. And that is only a very small part of the story, and omits the direct implementation of terrorist atrocities. About that there is a long and ugly record. In fact, the US is alone in having been condemned by the World Court for what amounts to international terrorism, in its attack against Nicaragua. The Court ordered the Reagan administration — those now in power again in Washington — to terminate its terrorist war against Nicaragua. Of course the administration disregarded the Court order, at once escalating the terrorist war, and vetoing Security Council resolutions supporting the Court judgment. The US is not alone in these practices, by any means. Rather generally, such practices to to run roughly run in parallel with the power to commit the crimes. Again, that is familiar to the victims over the centuries, or at least should be. Can systems of power protect human values? Certainly they can, and sometimes they do, the US included. This happens when protecting human values serves power interests, or when an aroused citizenry demands it. Both of those factors were responsible for US protection of Iraqi Kurds in the 1990s, while at the same time the US was providing the decisive military and diplomatic support for the atrocious repression of the Kurds across the border — though the population of the US was and remains unaware of these crimes; the massive evidence was suppressed by the media and the intellectual classes, as is commonly the case.

– In some of your works you said that there is no hope of a better future since USA power is progressing, why are you a pessimistic man? Does that mean that the American model will not be successful?

I never say that. Rather, the opposite. There is great hope for a better future, and to create it should be a primary commitment for people in the US, the West generally, and the rest of the world. And there are very hopeful signs, which I constantly stress. As for the “American model,” it depends what you mean. The people of the United States have many wonderful achievements to their credit: protection of freedom of speech, for example, is unique in the world, to my knowledge, and many other rights have been won. These have not been gifts from above, but the result of dedicated popular struggle. If that is the model you have in mind, I hope it will be more successful, in the US and elsewhere. If by the “American model” you mean what is proclaimed in the Bush National Security Strategy and implemented in practice, or the neoliberal economic model that is designed to transfer control of most of the world to transnational corporations linked to one another and to a few powerful states — what the international business press calls “the de facto world government” — then I certainly hope it will not be successful, as should we all.

– To what extent media and propaganda is successful in making American citizens follow the policies of their government? Could the opponents of that policy reach their voice to others?

It varies. Take, for example, the invasion of Iraq. The invasion was virtually announced in September 2002, along with the National Security Strategy. That was followed by a massive government/media propaganda campaign that quickly drove large parts of US opinion completely off the international spectrum. A majority came to believe that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat to the US, that he was responsible for the crimes of September 11 2001 and was planning new atrocities in cooperation with Al Qaeda, etc. Those beliefs were closely correlated with support for the invasion, not surprisingly. They were known at once to be completely false, but it did not matter: lies proclaimed loudly and incessantly become a Higher Truth. Nevertheless, the propaganda campaign was only partially successful. Protest against the invasion reached levels beyond anything in the history of Europe or the United States. When the US attacked South Vietnam in 1962 — as it did, uncontroversially — there was no protest at all. Protest did not begin to reach a serious level for 4-5 years; by then South Vietnam, the main target of the US attack, had been virtually destroyed, and the aggression had spread to most of Indochina. For the first time in the history of the West, there was enormous protest against the invasion of Iraq even before the war was officially declared. That is only one of many examples of how power systems have lost control of good parts of the population. The worldwide global justice movements, which are also unprecedented, are another striking example. And there are many more.

– Some critisize you as the most militant American among those who are opponent to Israel, some say that you, as a jew, hates yourself. How are comes that you criticizing Israel in such manner?

The charges are interesting. Those who know the Bible know their origins. The charges trace back to King Ahab, who was the epitome of evil in the Bible. King Ahab condemned the Prophet Elijah as a hater of Israel. The flatterers at King Ahab’s court agreed. Elijah was a “self-hating Jew,” to borrow the terminology of the contemporary flatterers at the court, because he was criticizing the policies of the King and calling for justice and respect for human rights. Similar charges were familiar in the old Soviet Union: dissidents were condemned for hating Russia. And there are other examples in military dictatorships and totalitarian states. Such criticisms reflect deeply held totalitarian values. For a dedicated totalitarian, ruling powers are to be identified with the people, the culture, and the society. Israel is King Ahab Russia is the Kremlin. For totalitarians, criticism of state policy is criticism of the country and its people. For those who have any concern for democracy and freedom, such charges are merely farcical. If an Italian critic of Berlusconi were condemned as “anti-Italian,” or as a “self-hating Italian,” it would elicit ridicule in Rome or Milan, though it was possible in the days of Mussolini’s Fascism. It is particularly interesting when such attitudes are expressed in free societies, as in the case of those you are quoting.

I In fact, I do not particularly criticize Israel, but I do strongly criticize the crucial role of the US — my country, after all — in supporting barbaric crimes of its client state, and barring a peaceful political settlement along the lines that have been supported by virtually the entire world since the 1970s. For the totalitarian mentality, this is “hating Israel,” or “hating the United States.” King Ahab and the flatterers at his court, the Kremlin and its commissars, and others who call for abject submission to power will doubtless agree. Those who treasure freedom, justice, and human rights will follow a different path, as throughout history.