For over 40 years, MIT professor Noam Chomsky has been one of the world’s leading intellectual critics of U.S. foreign policy. Today, with America’s latest imperial adventure in trouble both politically and militarily, Chomsky — who turned 77 two weeks ago — vows not to slow down “as long as I’m ambulatory.” I spoke with him by phone, on Dec. 9 and again on Dec. 20, from his office in Cambridge.
Geov Parrish: Is George Bush in political trouble? And if so, why?
Noam Chomsky: George Bush would be in severe political trouble if there were an opposition political party in the country. Just about every day, they’re shooting themselves in the foot. The striking fact about contemporary American politics is that the Democrats are making almost no gain from this. The only gain that they’re getting is that the Republicans are losing support. Now, again, an opposition party would be making hay, but the Democrats are so close in policy to the Republicans that they can’t do anything about it. When they try to say something about Iraq, George Bush turns back to them, or Karl Rove turns back to them, and says, “How can you criticize it? You all voted for it.” And, yeah, they’re basically correct.
GP: How could the Democrats distinguish themselves at this point, given that they’ve already played into that trap?
NC: Democrats read the polls way more than I do, their leadership. They know what public opinion is. They could take a stand that’s supported by public opinion instead of opposed to it. Then they could become an opposition party, and a majority party. But then they’re going to have to change their position on just about everything.
Take, for example, take your pick, say for example health care. Probably the major domestic problem for people. A large majority of the population is in favor of a national health care system of some kind. And that’s been true for a long time. But whenever that comes up — it’s occasionally mentioned in the press — it’s called “politically impossible,” or “lacking political support,” which is a way of saying that the insurance industry doesn’t want it, the pharmaceutical corporations don’t want it, and so on. Okay, so a large majority of the population wants it, but who cares about them? Well, Democrats are the same. Clinton came up with some cockamamie scheme which was so complicated you couldn’t figure it out, and it collapsed.
Kerry in the last election, the last debate in the election, October 28 I think it was, the debate was supposed to be on domestic issues. And the New York Times had a good report of it the next day. They pointed out, correctly, that Kerry never brought up any possible government involvement in the health system because it “lacks political support.” It’s their way of saying, and Kerry’s way of understanding, that political support means support from the wealthy and the powerful. Well, that doesn’t have to be what the Democrats are. You can imagine an opposition party that’s based on popular interests and concerns.
GP: Given the lack of substantive differences in the foreign policies of the two parties —
NC: Or domestic.
GP: Yeah, or domestic. But I’m setting this up for a foreign policy question. Are we being set up for a permanent state of war?
NC: I don’t think so. Nobody really wants war. What you want is victory. Take, say, Central America. In the 1980s, Central America was out of control. The U.S. had to fight a vicious terrorist war in Nicaragua, had to support murderous terrorist states in El Salvador and Guatemala, and Honduras, but that was a state of war. All right, the terrorists succeeded. Now, it’s more or less peaceful. So you don’t even read about Central America any more because it’s peaceful. I mean, suffering and miserable, and so on, but peaceful. So it’s not a state of war. And the same elsewhere. If you can keep people under control, It’s not a state of war.
Take, say, Russia and Eastern Europe. Russia ran Eastern Europe for half a century, almost, with very little military intervention. Occasionally they’d have to invade East Berlin, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, but most of the time it was peaceful. And they thought everything was fine — run by local security forces, local political figures, no big problem. That’s not a permanent state of war.
GP: In the War on Terror, however, how does one define victory against a tactic? You can’t ever get there.
NC: There are metrics. For example, you can measure the number of terrorist attacks. Well, that’s gone up sharply under the Bush administration, very sharply after the Iraq war. As expected — it was anticipated by intelligence agencies that the Iraq war would increase the likelihood of terror. And the post-invasion estimates by the CIA, National Intelligence Council, and other intelligence agencies are exactly that. Yes, it increased terror. In fact, it even created something which never existed — a new training ground for terrorists, much more sophisticated than Afghanistan, where they were training professional terrorists to go out to their own countries. So, yeah, that’s a way to deal with the War on Terror, namely, increase terror. And the obvious metric, the number of terrorist attacks, yeah, they’ve succeeded in increasing terror.
The fact of the matter is that there is no War on Terror. It’s a minor consideration. So invading Iraq and taking control of the world’s energy resources was way more important than the threat of terror. And the same with other things. Take, say, nuclear terror. The American intelligence systems estimate that the likelihood of a “dirty bomb,” a dirty nuclear bomb attack in the United States in the next ten years, is about 50 percent. Well, that’s pretty high. Are they doing anything about it? Yeah. They’re increasing the threat, by increasing nuclear proliferation, by compelling potential adversaries to take very dangerous measures to try to counter rising American threats.
This is even sometimes discussed. You can find it in the strategic analysis literature. Take, say, the invasion of Iraq again. We’re told that they didn’t find weapons of mass destruction. Well, that’s not exactly correct. They did find weapons of mass destruction, namely, the ones that had been sent to Saddam by the United States, Britain, and others through the 1980s. A lot of them were still there. They were under control of U.N. inspectors and were being dismantled. But many were still there. When the U.S. invaded, the inspectors were kicked out, and Rumsfeld and Cheney didn’t tell their troops to guard the sites. So the sites were left unguarded, and they were systematically looted. The U.N. inspectors did continue their work by satellite and they identified over 100 sites that were systematically looted, like, not somebody going in and stealing something, but carefully, systematically looted.
GP: By people who knew what they were doing.
NC: Yeah, people who knew what they were doing. It meant that they were taking the high-precision equipment that you can use for nuclear weapons and missiles, dangerous biotoxins, all sorts of stuff. Nobody knows where it went, but, you know, you hate to think about it. Well, that’s increasing the threat of terror, substantially. Russia has sharply increased its offensive military capacity in reaction to Bush’s programs, which is dangerous enough, but also to try to counter overwhelming U.S. dominance in offensive capacity. They are compelled to ship nuclear missiles all over their vast territory. And mostly unguarded. And the CIA is perfectly well aware that Chechen rebels have been casing Russian railway installations, probably with a plan to try to steal nuclear missiles. Well, yeah, that could be an apocalypse. But they’re increasing that threat. Because they don’t care that much.
Same with global warming. They’re not stupid. They know that they’re increasing the threat of a serious catastrophe. But that’s a generation or two away. Who cares? There’s basically two principles that define the Bush administration policies: stuff the pockets of your rich friends with dollars, and increase your control over the world. Almost everything follows from that. If you happen to blow up the world, well, you know, it’s somebody else’s business. Stuff happens, as Rumsfeld said.
GP: You’ve been tracking U.S. wars of foreign aggression since Vietnam, and now we’re in Iraq. Do you think there’s any chance in the aftermath, given the fiasco that it’s been, that there will be any fundamental changes in U.S. foreign policy? And if so, how would it come about?
NC: Well, there are significant changes. Compare, for example, the war in Iraq with 40 years ago, the war in Vietnam. There’s quite significant change. Opposition to the war in Iraq is far greater than the much worse war in Vietnam. Iraq is the first war I think in the history of European imperialism, including the U.S., where there was massive protest before the war was officially launched. In Vietnam it took four or five years before there was any visible protest. Protest was so slight that nobody even remembers or knows that Kennedy attacked South Vietnam in 1962. It was a serious attack. It was years later before protest finally developed.
GP: What do you think should be done in Iraq?
NC: Well, the first thing that should be done in Iraq is for us to be serious about what’s going on. There is almost no serious discussion, I’m sorry to say, across the spectrum, of the question of withdrawal. The reason for that is that we are under a rigid doctrine in the West, a religious fanaticism, that says we must believe that the United States would have invaded Iraq even if its main product was lettuce and pickles, and the oil resources of the world were in Central Africa. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is condemned as a conspiracy theorist, a Marxist, a madman, or something. Well, you know, if you have three gray cells functioning, you know that that’s perfect nonsense. The U.S. invaded Iraq because it has enormous oil resources, mostly untapped, and it’s right in the heart of the world’s energy system. Which means that if the U.S. manages to control Iraq, it extends enormously its strategic power, what Zbigniew Brzezinski calls its “critical leverage” over Europe and Asia. Yeah, that’s a major reason for controlling the oil resources — it gives you strategic power. Even if you’re on renewable energy you want to do that. So that’s the reason for invading Iraq, the fundamental reason.
Now let’s talk about withdrawal. Take any day’s newspapers or journals and so on. They start by saying the United States aims to bring about a sovereign democratic independent Iraq. I mean, is that even a remote possibility? Just consider what the policies would be likely to be of an independent sovereign Iraq. If it’s more or less democratic, it’ll have a Shiite majority. They will naturally want to improve their linkages with Iran, Shiite Iran. Most of the clerics come from Iran. The Badr Brigade, which basically runs the South, is trained in Iran. They have close and sensible economic relationships which are going to increase. So you get an Iraqi/Iran loose alliance. Furthermore, right across the border in Saudi Arabia, there’s a Shiite population which has been bitterly oppressed by the U.S.-backed fundamentalist tyranny. And any moves toward independence in Iraq are surely going to stimulate them, it’s already happening. That happens to be where most of Saudi Arabian oil is. Okay, so you can just imagine the ultimate nightmare in Washington: a loose Shiite alliance controlling most of the world’s oil, independent of Washington and probably turning toward the East, where China and others are eager to make relationships with them, and are already doing it. Is that even conceivable? The U.S. would go to nuclear war before allowing that, as things now stand.
Now, any discussion of withdrawal from Iraq has to at least enter the real world, meaning, at least consider these issues. Just take a look at the commentary in the United States, across the spectrum. How much discussion do you see of these issues? Well, you know, approximately zero, which means that the discussion is just on Mars. And there’s a reason for it. We’re not allowed to concede that our leaders have rational imperial interests. We have to assume that they’re good-hearted and bumbling. But they’re not. They’re perfectly sensible. They can understand what anybody else can understand. So the first step in talk about withdrawal is: consider the actual situation, not some dream situation, where Bush is pursuing a vision of democracy or something. If we can enter the real world we can begin to talk about it. And yes, I think there should be withdrawal, but we have to talk about it in the real world and know what the White House is thinking. They’re not willing to live in a dream world.
GP: How will the U.S. deal with China as a superpower?
NC: What’s the problem with China?
GP: Well, competing for resources, for example.
NC: Well, if you believe in markets, the way we’re supposed to, compete for resources through the market. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the United States doesn’t like the way it’s coming out. Well, too bad. Who has ever liked the way it’s coming out when you’re not winning? China isn’t any kind of threat. We can make it a threat. If you increase the military threats against China, then they will respond. And they’re already doing it. They’ll respond by building up their military forces, their offensive military capacity, and that’s a threat. So, yeah, we can force them to become a threat.
GP: What’s your biggest regret over 40 years of political activism? What would you have done differently?
NC: I would have done more. Because the problems are so serious and overwhelming that it’s disgraceful not to do more about it.
GP: What gives you hope?
NC: What gives me hope actually is public opinion. Public opinion in the United States is very well studied, we know a lot about it. It’s rarely reported, but we know about it. And it turns out that, you know, I’m pretty much in the mainstream of public opinion on most issues. I’m not on some, not on gun control or creationism or something like that, but on most crucial issues, the ones we’ve been talking about, I find myself pretty much at the critical end, but within the spectrum of public opinion. I think that’s a very hopeful sign. I think the United States ought to be an organizer’s paradise.
GP: What sort of organizing should be done to try and change some of these policies?
NC:Well, there’s a basis for democratic change. Take what happened in Bolivia a couple of days ago. How did a leftist indigenous leader get elected? Was it showing up at the polls once every four years and saying, “Vote for me!”? No. It’s because there are mass popular organizations which are working all the time on everything from blocking privatization of water to resources to local issues and so on, and they’re actually participatory organizations. Well, that’s democracy. We’re a long way from it. And that’s one task of organizing.