‘If You’re Intending to Bomb a Country, You Don’t Announce it for Three Years’

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Marija Zidar

Delo (Sobotna priloga), April 2, 2005

Today, his hour is normally forty minutes long. Sometimes even, only thirty. It’s perfectly enough. In his soft, gravelly voice he is able to tell twice as much as most others would about neoliberals, neoconservatives, the European extreme right and world crises centers, and in a from that can be transcribed and translated virtually verbatim. Without pausing a single time for more than a moment or two in search for the right word.

Marija Zidar: What importance, if any, do Nato and OSCE have for the United States? The first year of Slovenian membership in Nato has just passed, while the Slovenian government has been presenting Slovenia’s current presidency of OSCE, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as being of utmost importance. Is it correct to think so?

Noam Chomsky: American policymakers are very much concerned with it. Their hope is… There’s an old joke about Nato that goes back 50 years and says it was designed to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down. And now the Russians are out, the Americans want to be in, Europe has ambivalent feelings about it, and they definitely want to keep Germany, well, not just Germany but Germany and France, down. I mean Germany and France are the industrial, commercial, financial centers of Europe, and insofar as they dominate European Union policy, it can move in directions that the United States may not prefer – as we saw during the Iraq war. The United States is hoping to dilute their influence by bringing in other smaller, peripheral countries that it hopes will be more subject to US will, and will therefore give the US more influence within Nato altogether.

And Nato expansion to the East is in direct violation of the promises that were made by the first George Bush to Gorbachev. Gorbachev agreed to unify Germany, which would join the West, which was a very serious matter for Russia; I mean Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia three times in a generation, and Germany as part of the unified Germany, as part of remilitarized, as part of Western Alliance… is very threatening. So he made a concession that Russia will permit that but on condition that Nato not be extended to the East. And then of course Nato has been extended to the East, and now it is extending farther to the East; they will probably bring in Ukraine, maybe bring in Belarus and so on. All of it is part of surrounding Russia with an array of hostile military alliances.

Same problems are going on in Central Asia. So the extension of OSCE and Nato is of significance to the United States for these reasons: to try to prevent Europe from becoming a real independent force in the world affairs, and competitor.

Zidar: Can Europe present an alternative to the United States? To put it differently: can the United States in effect have an equal competitor?

Chomsky: The world has been pretty much tripolar economically since about 1970. At the end of the second World War, the United States was just overwhelmingly dominant: it actually had about 50 per cent of the world’s wealth, unparalleled security, overwhelming military advantages and so on. Most of the industrial economies have been damaged or destroyed, the US economy gained enormously through the war, in fact industrial production more than tripled. And already it was the largest economy in the world, so… And that has declined since 1950. So by 1970 it was … US had roughly 25 per cent of world production, and it’s been stabilized more or less like that.

By 1970 there were three major economic centers: Western Europe, North America and Japan. And since then the East-Asian countries have developed, China’s began to grow, India’s become a more significant power, and by now North-East Asia is the most dynamic economic region in the world.

Zidar: The Nobel laureate Lawrence Klein, who together with you has been awarded an honorary doctorate here in Ljubljana, argues that China and India have taken the lead in terms of economic growth. Can this in turn result in an increase of their political power and influence?

Chomsky: China is expected to become… I mean, China probably now has the second largest economy to the United States, depends how you measure. If you measure in purchasing power, China’s estimated second largest, of course much less per capita, but China, Japan and… Japan and South Korea are two of the major industrial powers. They have resources in Eastern Siberia and in China to some extent. And India’s growing. There’s a kind of a return to the situation prior to European imperialism. Before Europe invaded Asia, the major industrial and commercial centers in the world were China and India. And it’s coming back, sort of, to that situation.

So, in any event, there are three major areas. China and Europe are creating linkages; China and Europe are now close trading partners, probably the closest trading partners for each of them or close to it, India’s on the periphery, South-East Asia is developing. So there are roughly three major world blocks, and the European and the Asian one are intruding into the US sphere of influence: into South America. China and Brazil are developing close relations, Europe’s investing and so on. So the world is, roughly speaking, tripolar economically. And the three regions are different. Europe has somewhat its own traditions, it has more of a social market economy, more welfare systems, less of a… it has higher wages, more workers rights. The United States has practically the lowest wages in the industrial world, the lowest benefits, the highest debt and very heavy labor loads. Americans work probably six weeks a year more than say, a German worker. Those are different systems.

Zidar: The current Slovenian government is endeavoring to implement the neoliberal economic model of the American type, while Milton Friedman, its main theoretical proponent, has recently renounced some of his tenets…

Chomsky: Neoliberalism has two aspects, one of them is discussed, the other is not much discussed. The one that’s discussed is the effect on economic development. And in that respect the evidence is fairly clear: the neoliberal programs have been in effect since 1970s, and the countries that have adopted those rules have suffered, the countries that ignored those rules have succeeded. It’s a very close correlation.

This is sort of mixed up by economists because they confuse neoliberalism with trade or export, and that’s a different dimension; you can be totalitarian and have a lot of export, you know. But the East-Asian countries basically disregarded neoliberal rules; China almost totally disregarded them, India keeps capital controls and so on, and they’ve done quite well, in fact amazingly well. Japan has also disregarded them.

The countries that accepted the rules – primarily Latin America, which kept to them rigidly, Southern Africa, the United States to a limited extent – they’ve done much more poorly than they did in the preceding 25 years. So that correlation is very close. It’s mixed up in World Bank statistics and by many economists because, as I say, they confuse, purposely confuse, neoliberalism with export. And those are, again, different dimensions. For example the US became the richest country in the world with very low exports, just with a big internal market, and so on. But that is clear. On the economic side it’s fairly clear: the neoliberal rules have harmed economic growth and development, productivity, they’ve also lead to sharpened inequality and so on.

But they also have a political effect, and they are partially designed for that. The entire neoliberal package is designed to reduce democracy, I mean just about every aspect of it. So the core aspect…

Zidar: Reduce democracy – how?

Chomsky: Well, the core aspect of neoliberalism is freeing financial capital, meaning that governments cannot control capital markets; they can’t stop capital exports, they can’t control their currencies, and so on. This is well known among economists and has been for … actually hundreds of years that if a country cannot control capital flow, and cannot fix its interest rates, that it has a very narrow range of possible policy choices. So there’s what economists sometimes call a ‘virtual parliament’ of investors and lenders who monitor government policy, and if they don’t like it, they destroy the economy – there’s capital flight, they attack the currency, and so on.

So the main thrust of neoliberalism is to reduce democracy. And that’s well understood. I mean, the reason why the Bretton Woods system that was instituted after the second World War included capital control on relatively fixed currencies was both because it was assumed – correctly – that that would lead to growth, and, secondly, because it would allow governments to carry out welfare state measures, for which there was enormous pressure. And they can’t carry them out if you eliminate these controls. So that’s one thing.

But the same is true of every other aspect of the neoliberal package, say privatization. I mean there’s no real economic motive for privatization. If a Swedish company is national, it will be efficient, if a Mexican company is national, it will be corrupt – and the same will be true if they become privatized. So there’s no real economic motive. But there’s a definite political motive. If something is privatized, it’s out of the public arena by definition, meaning people have nothing to say about it anymore. The move towards the privatization of what you call ‘services’ is essentially a method of destroying democracy altogether. So if you think what services are: services include health, education, water – just about anything any person could be concerned with…

Zidar: Attempts are currently being made towards the privatization of services also in Slovenia. What consequences can this have, in your opinion?

Chomsky: … And if that is privatized, it’s put in the hands of tyrannical, totalitarian institutions – which is what corporations are, which are more or less unaccountable to the public. And it’s out of the public arena, so that the public can’t decide what kind of medical services they have, or water supplies or whatever. It’s out of the public arena, and that’s a major attack on democracy. The major significance of neoliberalism is to undermine democracy. That’s its major purpose and its clear effect. You can see the consequences. The economic consequences you can debate, but it seems pretty clear that the political ones are straightforward.

Zidar: Speaking of ‘neo’; what effects will another ‘neo’ have on the world: the prevalence of neoconservatives in the Bush administration? Wolfowitz and Negroponte have been involved in the Iraq situation, Bolton is a defender of unilateralism, Gonzales has provided the legal grounds for Abu Ghraib…

Chomsky: For these people I don’t think that the term neoconservative is very… It’s the one that’s in use but it’s misleading. First of all, they’re not conservatives at all. They’re radical nationalists. They’re radical nationalist extremists, who serve private power with fanatic dedication. They despise democracy, they want to eliminate it. They tend to believe that the United States should use its military force to dominate the world instead of other kinds of interaction. They’re very remote from public opinion – public opinion is opposed to them.

And they manage to maintain some degree of control over power by shifting public attention from what are called issues to qualities. So you try to frighten the public, you try to make them think you’re pursuing their moral values, somebody’s going to defend them … that sort of thing. I mean, they’re very much like Hitler. If you have to control the public somehow, you’re carrying out actions that are harmful to them, you have to use those methods – so they do. And they’re aggressive and violent, and kind of an extremist nationalist group.

Domestically, they have a very clear goal; they want to eliminate the entire progressive legislation of the past century, to eliminate pensions, healthcare, whatever rights people want, labor rights – they want to eliminate labor rights. And it’s very clear, they’re not concealing it; the agenda is very straightforward. Internationally, they’re doing what they say; they want to dominate the world by military force, they’re carrying out a major expansion of offensive military forces, understanding perfectly well that that increases the threat of terror, and increases the treat of even accidental nuclear war because it’s forcing others to respond in the same way.

Zidar: What current crises you believe are a result of such policy?

Chomsky: Actually there are crises all over. There’s a crisis with Russia and China. People don’t talk about it much, but if you look at the strategic analysts, strategic literature, they’re very concerned. One obvious consequence of the vast US increase in military force is that Russia is compelled to respond. Russia had cut down its military expenses enormously but now they’re increasing; in the Bush years they’ve probably tripled. Last year, about a year ago, they had their first military exercises in about two decades in which they deployed very visibly offensive missiles with nuclear weapons and more sophisticated weapons. These are all on automated control.

We know that the US systems are very uncertain; they have many errors, there’s hundreds of times in which automated response, meaning nuclear war, has been stopped by human intervention. The way the US systems work… Computers give a signal that a missile attack’s coming, and there’s three minutes for humans to investigate to see whether it’s real; if not, they cancel it. But these systems are going to break down, and the Russian systems are much worse than the American systems because there’s just a less advanced economy, and their computerized systems aren’t that good, and so on. So they’re forcing the Russians into hair trigger alert, into computer control with more offensive systems and so on. It’s virtually asking for suicide. They’re now finally forcing the Chinese to do the same thing.

The militarization of space which the US has… actually Clinton pursued that alone, it was also unilateral but the Bush administration sharply escalated it. That’s increasing the threat. They’re also giving Iran very strong incentives.

Zidar: Does Iran present a real threat in this respect?

Chomsky: Well, they’re trying to get Iran… I mean they’re acting in a way that will almost force Iran to move to nuclear weapons. Iran is surrounded now by hostile forces – nuclear forces – on every border, either US or US allies. It’s under threat undoubtedly, so it’ll respond. And I suppose that’s what the neocons want: they want Iran to do something to develop nuclear weapons or something like that. Partly that’s a weapon against Europe. They’re concerned that Europe has been increasingly refusing to go along with the US embargo against Iran. European countries, and Japan and China, have been investing in Iran. And the US wants to stop that because they want to strangle and stifle Iran.

They talk about threats to bomb and so on; I suspect most of that is aimed at Europe. They try to intimidate Europeans so that they’ll pull back their investments – and that’s happening. Some of the major European companies like British Petroleum have in fact cut back investments and connections with Iran in response to US military threats. Japan is… It’s hard to get exact information but Japan has apparently pulled back from an oil field development program that they were planning.

On the other hand China can’t be intimidated so they just go ahead and they’re continuing with their investments and relations with Iran. And India, interestingly, though it’s now become a close US ally, is also persisting with its pipeline arrangements with Iran. So there is a lot of maneuvering to see it the United States can succeed in isolating Iran.

I don’t think the US is going to attack Iran. I mean, the US does not want to attack any country unless it’s completely defenseless. And Iran is not yet completely defenseless. Iraq was, you know; Iraq had no army, no nothing, so you could attack it. Iran still is a functioning society and unless the US can subvert it from within, they could begin to crack up, and isolate it from the world, they won’t take a chance on attacking it.

I think a lot of what’s happening isn’t even reported. Last year, for example, the US sent about a hundred advanced jet bombers to Israel openly advertised in the military journals as being capable of bombing Iran and returning. That’s a clear threat to the Iranian leadership to try to force them to become more militaristic and more repressive, which would contribute to subverting the country and intimidating Europe. But it doesn’t look as if… I mean, at least if they’re sensible, you don’t… If you’re intending to bomb a country, you don’t announce for three years: ‘I’m going to bomb you’. That just gives them a chance to disperse facilities and set up defenses, and so on. So I suspect most if it is a show to intimidate Europeans and to make Iran more repressive.

Zidar: Radical nationalism you mentioned earlier is on the rise in Europe as well: the far right has been increasingly gaining power, there are endless revisionist debates on war and the post-war history and so on. Due to such revisionist debates, Slovenia has recently been having problems for example with Italy. How do you explain these phenomena?

Chomsky: It’s a dangerous phenomenon. Italy has a neofascist movement which is pretty strong, Germany has something; but it’s slightly misleading. It’s worth remembering; when the US, Britain and Russia occupied Europe, the main thing they wanted to do was to destroy the resistance. So, one of their first tasks was to destroy the antifascist resistance. That’s the first chapter of the post-war period. Actually in the case of US and Britain, it started in 1943: when they moved into Italy from the south, the first thing they did was restore the old fascist order, and crush the partisans and the fascist resistance, which was a very strong thing. In Italy, the partisans had pretty much driven the Germans out of Northern Italy. When the American and British forces came in, they had to liberate Italy from its own people, from the partisans. And the partisans had what they called ‘communist’… But they weren’t particularly that, they were radical democratic; they had worker-controlled industry and radical democratic programs, which the US and Britain wouldn’t tolerate. So they destroyed them, and restored something like the traditional fascist order. And they did the same in Germany and in France.

What happened after the war was that something like the traditional order was restored: traditional conservative business-run order with some variation, and the resistance was eliminated. In history, the resistance was eliminated. Very few people know the history of the partisans. The new right that’s coming now is an extreme version of the realfascists coming back but the actual history of the liberation of Europe by its own people was mostly suppressed.

Zidar: Professor Chomsky, how do you organize your time? How do you filter information? What do you read after the death of Edward Said?

Chomsky: Edward Said was a close friend but he was not… I mean, there’s many people who…

Zidar: Any names?

Chomsky: First of all, it’s not individuals, it’s popular movements. If you want to learn something about what’s going on in the world, read Z-Net – something a lot of people contribute to: Stephen Shalom, Michael Albert, all sorts of people, Howard Zinn… But these are no more opinion-makers than I am, these are people involved in popular movements who speak for them.

Zidar: How do you select what books to read?

Chomsky: What I’m interested in. I mean, it’s not ‘left’; I read all sorts of things. Depends on what interest you’re pursuing.

Zidar: The historian Howard Zinn believes you’re one of the greatest American historians; however neither the Journal of American History, nor Reviews of American History, nor the American Historical Review has reviewed any of your books even though they included the work of such non-historians as Michel Foucault and John Updike.

Chomsky: Michel Foucault is inoffensive; I mean he talks complicated things that nobody understands and so on. It’s complicated to talk about him. John Updike’s a novelist. But very few societies are willing to tolerate critical opinion that defies mainstream doctrine. So there’s various ways of eliminating you. It’s normal. It’s to be expected.

Zidar: So how have you managed to persevere throughout all these years? You always say that while it’s true that in democratic societies you don’t get downright shot as you might in authoritarian ones, there are still other ways of ‘punishment’: you lose your status, your job, social security, and so on. You don’t seem to have lost either of these.

Chomsky: It’s not an issue. I mean, in more or less free countries like, say, the United States or England, the worst that can happen is that you get criticized or denounced or something. It makes no difference. Popular movements are growing, that’s all that counts.