Noam Chomsky, whom the New York Times has called “arguably the most important intellectual alive,” was voted the leading living public intellectual in The 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll conducted by the British magazine Prospect. Chomsky, Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a world-renowned linguist, writer, and political analyst. He is the author of many books on US foreign policy and international affairs, the most recent of which is “Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy.”
This interview was conducted by phone from Beirut on May 2, 2006.
Khatchig Mouradian- In an article entitled “Domestic Constituencies,” you say: “It is always enlightening to seek out what is omitted in propaganda campaigns.” Can you expand on what is omitted in the US propaganda campaign on Lebanon and Syria after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005?
Noam Chomsky- The only thing being discussed is that there was an assassination and Syria was involved in it. How come Syria is in Lebanon in the first place? Why did the US welcome Syria in Lebanon in 1976? Why did George Bush I support Syrian presence and domination and influence in Lebanon in 1991 as part of his campaign against Iraq? Why did the US support the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982? Why did the US support Israel’s 22 year occupation of parts of Lebanon, an occupation in violation of Security Council resolutions? All these topics, and many others, are missing from the discussion.
In fact, the general principle is that anything that places US actions in a questionable light is omitted, with very rare exceptions. So if you blame something on an enemy, then you can discuss it, and Syria, right now is the official enemy. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the charges against Syria are wrong. It just means that everything else is omitted.
K.M. – When speaking about regimes in the Middle East, you often quote the expressions “Arab façade” and “local cop on the beat.” What is the role of Lebanon in the area?
N.C. – The phrase “Arab façade” comes from the British Foreign secretary Lord Curzon after WWI. At the time, when the British were planning the organization of the Middle East, their idea was that there should be Arab façades which are apparent governments, behind which they would rule. The expression “local cop on the beat” comes from the Nixon administration. It was their conception of how the Middle East should be run. There should be a peripheral region of gendarme states (Turkey, Iran under the Shah, Israel joined after the ‘67 war, Pakistan was there for a while). These states were to be the local cops on the beat while the US would be the police headquarters.
The place of Lebanon was critical. It was primarily of concern because of the transition of oil and also because it was a financial center. The US was concerned in keeping it under control to ensure that the entire Middle East energy system remains controlled. Incidentally, for the same reasons, the US has regarded Greece as part of the Near East. Greece was actually in the Near East section of the State Department until 1974, because its main role in US planning was to be part of the system by which the Middle East oil gets transported to the west. The same is true with Italy. However, Lebanon had a much more crucial role in this respect, because it is right in the center of the Middle East. The aforementioned, as well as the support for Israel’s action- Israel being a local cop on the beat- were the motivating factors behind Eisenhower’s dispatch of military forces to Lebanon in 1958.
K.M. – And what does the US administration expect from Lebanon today?
N.C. – The role of Lebanon is to be an obedient, passive state which regains its status as a financial center but accommodates to the major US policies, which do include control of the energy resources.
K.M. – What about Lebanon’s role within the context of pressuring Syria?
N.C. – The question of Syria is a separate one. Yes, Lebanon is expected to play a role for putting pressure on Syria. However, the problem for the US is that Syria is not a subordinate state. There are a lot of serious criticisms you can make about Syria, but the internal problems of that country are of no special concern to the US, which supports much more brutal governments. The problem with Syria is that it simply does not subordinate itself to the US program in the Middle East. Syria and Iran are the two countries in the region that have not accepted US economic arrangements. And the policies against such countries are similar. Take the bombing of Serbia in 1999, for example. Why was Serbia an enemy? Certainly it wasn’t because of the atrocities it was carrying out. We know that the bombing was carried out with the expectation that it would lead to a sharp escalation in atrocities. We know the answer from the highest level of the Clinton administration, and the answer was that Serbia was not adopting the proper social and economic reforms. In fact, it was the one corner of Europe which was still rejecting the socioeconomic arrangements that the US wanted to dictate for the world. The problem with Syria and Iran is more or less the same. Why is the US planning or threatening war against Iran? Is it because Iran has been aggressive? On the contrary, Iran was the target of US backed aggression. Is Iran threatening anybody? No. Is Iran more brutal and less democratic than the rest of the Arab world? It’s a joke. The problem is that Iran is not subordinating.
K.M. – In this context, why is Europe increasingly being supportive of US policies in the Middle East?
N.C. – If you look back over the past decades, a major concern of US policy –and it’s very clear in internal planning—is that Europe might strike an independent course. During the cold war period, US was afraid Europe might follow what they called “a third way,” and many mechanisms were used to inhibit any intention on the part of Europe to follow an independent course. That goes right back to the final days of World War II and its immediate aftermath, when US and Britain intervened, in some cases quite violently, to suppress the anti-fascist resistance and restore tradition structures, including fascist-Nazi collaborators. Germany was reconstructed pretty much the same way. The unwillingness to accept a unified neutral Germany in the 1950s was predicated on the same thinking. We don’t know if that would have been possible, but Stalin did offer a unified Germany which would have democratic elections which he was sure to lose, but on condition that it would not be part of a hostile military alliance. However, the US was not willing to tolerate a unified Germany. The establishment of NATO is in large part an effort to ensure European discipline and the current attempts to expand NATO are further planning of the same sort.
European elites have been, by and large, pretty satisfied with this arrangement. They’re not very different from the dominant forces in the US. They are somewhat different, but closely interrelated. There are mutual investments and business relations. The elite sectors of Europe don’t particularly object to the US policies. You can see this very strikingly in the case of Iran. The US has sought to isolate and strangle Iran for years. It had embargos and sanctions, and it has repeatedly threatened Europe to eliminate investments in Iran. The main European corporations have pretty much agreed to that. China, on the other hand, did not. China can’t be intimidated, that’s why the US government is frightened of China. But Europe backs off and pretty much follows US will. The same is true on the Israel-Palestine front. The US strongly supports Israeli takeover of the valuable parts of the occupied territories and pretty much the elimination of the possibility of any viable Palestinian state. On paper, the Europeans disagree with that and they do join the international consensus on a two-state settlement, but they don’t do anything about it. They’re not willing to stand against the US. When the US government decided to punish the Palestinians for electing the wrong party in the last elections, Europe went along, not totally, but pretty much. By and large, European elites do not see it in their interest to confront the US. They’d rather integrate with it. The problem the US is having with China, and Asia more generally, is that they don’t automatically accept US orders.
K.M. – They don’t fall in line…
N.C. – Yes, they won’t fall in line, and, especially in the case of China, they just won’t be intimidated. That’s why, if you read the latest National Security Strategy, China is identified as the major long range threat to the US. This is not because China is going to invade or attack anyone. In fact, of all the major nuclear powers, they’re the one that is the least aggressive, but they simple refuse to be intimidated, not just in their policies regarding the Middle East, but also in Latin America. While the US is trying to isolate and undermine Venezuela, China proceeds to invest in and to import from Venezuela without regard to what the US says.
The international order is in a way rather like the mafia. The godfather has to ensure that there is discipline.
Europe quietly pursues its own economic interests as long as they don’t fall in direct conflict with the US. Even in the case of Iran, although major European corporations did pull out of country, and Europe did back down on its bargain with Tehran on uranium enrichment, nevertheless, Europe does maintain economic relations with Iran. For years, the US has also tried to prevent Europe from investing in Cuba and Europe pretty much kept away, but not entirely. The US has a mixed attitude towards European investment and resource extraction in Latin America. For one thing, the US and European corporate systems are very much interlinked. The US relies on European support in many parts of the world. For Europe to invest in Latin America and import its resources is by no means as threatening to US domination as when China does.
K.M. – In one of his recent speeches, Hasan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizbullah, spoke of solidarity with the resistance movement in the occupied territories and with “our brother Chavez.” Let us speak about the common link that brings people on different sides of the Atlantic, and of different ideological background, together.
N.C. – The common thing that brings them together is that they do not subordinate themselves to US power. Hizbullah knows perfectly well that they’re not going to get help from Venezuela, but the fact that they are both following a course independently of US power and, in fact, in defiance to US orders, links them together.
The US has been trying, unsuccessfully, to topple the Cuban government for more than 45 years now and it remains. The rise of Chavez to power was very frightening to US elites. He has an enormous popular support. The level of support for the elected government in Venezuela has risen very sharply and it is now at the highest in Latin America. And Chavez is following an independent course. He’s doing a lot of things that the US doesn’t like a bit. For example, Argentina, which was driven to total ruin by following IMF orders, has slowly been reconstructing itself by rejecting IMF rules, and has wanted to pay off its debt to rid itself of the IMF. Chavez helped them, and he bought a substantial part of the Argentine debt. To rid oneself from the IMF means to rid oneself from one of the two modalities of control employed by the US: violence and economic force. Yesterday, Bolivia nationalized its gas reserves; the US is only (only??) opposed to that. And Bolivia was able to do that partly because of Venezuelan support.
If countries move in a direction of independent nationalism, that is regarded as unacceptable. Why did the US want to destroy Nasser? Was it because he was more violent and tyrannical than other leaders? The problem was that it was an independent secular nationalism. That just can’t be accepted.
K.M. – You talked about the Chavez government’s popularity at home. The polls show that the same is not true about the Bush Administration and its policies, both at home and abroad. Despite the discontent on a wide range of issues, little has changed in terms of US policy. How do you explain that?
N.C. – In a book that just came out, I talk about this at some length. The US has a growing and by now enormous democratic deficit at home; there’s an enormous divide between public opinion and public policy on a whole range of issues, from the health system to Iraq. The Bush administration has a very narrow grip on power- remember in the last election Bush got about 31 percent of the electorate, Kerry got 29 percent. A few changes in the votes in Ohio and it could have gone the other way- they’re using that narrow grip desperately to try to institutionalize very radical and far reaching changes in the US. They can get away with it because there’s no opposition party. If there were an opposition party, it would have totally overwhelmed the Bush administration. Every week, the Bush administration does something to shoot itself in the foot, whether it’s Hurricane Katrina, corruption scandals, or other issues, but the formal opposition party can’t make any gains. One of the most interesting things about US politics in the past years is that while support for the Bush administration, which was always very thin, has declined very sharply because of one catastrophe after the other, support for the Democrats hasn’t increased. It is increasing only as a reaction to the lack of support to the Republicans. This is because the Democrats are not presenting an alternative.
K.M. – You mentioned your recent book, Failed States. In the Afterword of that book, you say, “No one familiar with history should be surprised that the growing democratic deficit at home is accompanied by declaration of messianic missions to bring democracy to a suffering world.” How much are these “messianic missions” helping the Bush Administration?
N.C. – They’re helping the administration among the educated classes. I discuss this in some length in the book. The messianic missions came along right after the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The invasion was only on the ground that Iraq was just about to attack the US with nuclear weapons. Well, after a few months, they discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction, so they had to find a new pretext for invading and that became the messianic mission. The intellectual classes, in Europe as well, and even in the Arab world, picked this up: the leader said it therefore we have to believe it.
Among the general population, however, I don’t think these messianic missions have much influence, except indirectly. This whole rhetoric is a weak effort, and in fact by now it’s pretty desperate.
K.M. – My final question is about Turkey, one of the local cops on the beat. I was quite disturbed by the recent developments in the Southeast of the country. You have been to Turkey a number of times, and you have also visited the Kurdish regions. What is your take on the current status of freedoms in Turkey?
N.C. – As you most probably know, the leading Human Rights Watch investigator in Turkey, who is an extremely fine person, Jonathan Sugden, was just expelled from the country because he was investigating human rights violations in the Southeastern zone.
In 2002, the situation in Turkey and especially the Kurdish zone was pretty bad, but in the next few years it improved and now it’s regressing again. Let me just give you a personal example. I was there in 2002 to participate in the trial of a publisher who was being tried for publishing some remarks of mine about Turkey. Now he is again on trial for a different book.
There are many reasons for the regression. The military is exerting a much heavier hand; the reforms that were slowly taking place are reduced. My own feeling is that one of the reasons for these developments is the hostility of Europe towards allowing Turkey into the EU. There’s a pretty strong element of racism in that, which Turks are not unaware of.
 Noam Chomsky, “Domestic Constituencies,” Z Magazine, 11:5, p. 18.
 Lord Curzon once said that Britain wanted an “Arab facade ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, by an Arab staff.”
Khatchig Mouradian is a Lebanese-Armenian writer, translator, and journalist. He is an editor of the daily newspaper Aztag, published in Beirut. He can be contacted at email@example.com.