The New York Times calls him “arguably the most important intellectual alive”, yet he has needed police guards on his own campus. Andrew Stephen discusses Iraq, Iran and Blair with a man who divides opinion like no other
You might think the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would be well designed, but you would be wrong. I arrived to see the legendary Professor Noam Chomsky with five minutes to spare, but it then took 20 minutes of misdirections and meanderings before I finally reached MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, where Chomsky has reigned supreme for 51 years.
I arrived hot and sweaty, because I had been told by some that he did not suffer fools gladly, though others had insisted he was unfailingly courteous. People tend to have widely divergent, passionate views of Chomsky: to many he is a revered beacon of academe and politics, while critics exult in dismissing him as (take your pick) a fraud, a Zionist, an anti-Semite (he is Jewish), an off-the-chart commie, an agent of the CIA, Mossad, the KGB, MI6 and so on. The world is so split between Chomskyites and anti-Chomskyites that there is even a book called The Anti-Chomsky Reader.
My anxieties, though, turned out to be groundless. I was greeted by a softly spoken man in a speckled green pullover who could have been a decade younger than his 77 years, and who showed immediate empathy. “It’s a crazy building,” he said. “Can you imagine the point of having a faculty office with angled walls where you can’t even put a bookcase or blackboard?”
Hardly a minute has passed in the last half-century, it seems, when Chomsky has not been pouring out ideas and passions. He has published more than 100 books, ranging from his seminal 1957 work on linguistics, Syntactic Structures, to this year’s Failed States: the abuse of power and the assault on democracy, which deftly turns the Bush administration’s description of countries such as Afghanistan on the US itself. Linguistics is hardly my field, but I had tried in advance to get a feel for just how important his academic work is. I knew that his basic theory, put exceedingly simply, is that language is not something merely picked up by children in the course of growing up, but that we all come into the world with a linguistic framework embedded in our brains. My further research faltered, though, when the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy told me his work had evolved so that the “grammaticality” of a sentence could be explained by the theorem: X-NP1-V-NP2-Y->(1)X-NP2-be+enV-by+NP1-Yx. Then a friend who has a doctorate in linguistics came to my rescue: “Chomsky redid linguistics the way Freud redid psychology,” she explained in an e-mail. That was enough for me to place the man’s academic standing in context.
And so, that settled, to politics. We spoke about Iraq and Afghanistan, about Blair’s Britain (“I guess if the country’s going to blindly follow US orders it’s going to inherit the threats that come with that”), about how Messrs Bush, Blair, Straw and others were war criminals and why America is a failed state. But we began with the story dominating the media that day: the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Chomsky was not joining in the triumphalism.
“He was certainly a leading gangster and I don’t think there’s many people outside of his village in Jordan that mourn him. He’s had a horrible role that was basically created by the Iraq invasion, which we can’t escape responsibility for. He had a loose connection with al-Qaeda, mostly symbolic, with each trying to exploit the other. But that whole system which we call al-Qaeda is not an organisation, it’s a network of networks, a lot of loosely interconnected people. What the effects [of killing al-Zarqawi] will be in the massive terrorist apparatus that’s been created by the Bush-Blair invasion, one can only guess. The invasion was an enormous stimulant for terrorism, as was anticipated.”
Mastery of detail
Chomsky’s unremitting clarity and his seeming mastery of detail somehow defy interruption or argument, but they are wondrous to behold. When we talk about Bush, Blair and co being hauled before the War Crimes Tribunal, I mention Milosevic and he switches subjects without pausing. The case against the Bush administration is stronger, he insists, than that against the late Serb president. “Remember, the Milosevic Tribunal began with Kosovo, right in the middle of the US-British bombing in late ’99 . . . Now if you take a look at that indictment, with a single exception, every charge was for crimes after the bombing.
“There’s a reason for that. The bombing was undertaken with the anticipation explicit [that] it was going to lead to large-scale atrocities in response. As it did. Now there were terrible atrocities, but they were after the bombings. In fact, if you look at the British parliamentary inquiry, they actually reached the astonishing conclusion that, until January 1999, most of the crimes committed in Kosovo were attributed to the KLA guerrillas.
“So later they added charges [against Milosevic] about the Balkans, but it wasn’t going to be an easy case to make. The worst crime was Srebrenica but, unfortunately for the International Tribunal, there was an intensive investigation by the Dutch government, which was primarily responsible – their troops were there – and what they concluded was that not only did Milosevic not order it, but he had no knowledge of it. And he was horrified when he heard about it. So it was going to be pretty hard to make that charge stick.”
And Saddam Hussein? “Saddam Hussein is, of course, a leading monster, but he is being charged right now with crimes he committed in 1982 – with having killed about 150 Shiites after an assassination attempt in 1982. Well, 1982 is a pretty important year in US-Iraqi relations. That’s the year in which Ronald Reagan removed Iraq from the list of states supporting terrorism, so that the US would be able to provide their friend Saddam with large-scale aid. Donald Rumsfeld had to [go to] Iraq to tie up the agreement. That included the means to develop weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, and so on.
“A large point of that was to punish Iran. The weapons that were provided by the United States and Britain and Germany and Russia and France and plenty of others were supporting Iraq’s aggression. The US and Britain and those others were supporting it, so why aren’t they in the dock next to Saddam Hussein?”
I mentioned the hanging by Iraq of my then colleague on the Observer, Farzad Bazoft – and my feelings when a deputation of US senators went to Baghdad soon afterwards to see Saddam, and one of them told him that his regime’s main problem with the west was media perception. Chomsky did not miss a beat. “That was April 1990, a few months before the invasion of Kuwait. It was a high-level senatorial commission led by Robert Dole, who was the next presidential candidate for the Republicans, to convey President Bush’s greetings and to assure him that the United States had their best wishes for him and that he should not pay attention to the carping in the media because we have this free-press thing here . . . They were grovelling, and that was a couple of months before the invasion [of Kuwait].”
It’s worse in Britain, he says. “Jack Straw, in 2002, was wailing about Saddam Hussein’s atrocities – and right before that he turned down an application for asylum from an Iraqi dissident who had escaped the torture chambers. And he turned it down with a letter saying that [the man] could be sure that if he went back to Iraq he would be treated properly by their justice system.” He likes the description of Blair’s Britain, he tells me, as pillion rider on the American motorcycle.
And Afghanistan? “I think Afghanistan, if we look at it, is one of the most grotesque acts of modern history. There’s a lot of reinvented fables about it. But the war was undertaken explicitly on 7 October  with Bush’s announcement that unless the Taliban handed over to the United States people who the US suspected – not knew, but suspected – were involved in 9/11, then the US would bomb the people of Afghanistan.
“Admiral Boyce, I think it was, the British commander, then announced a change in the war aims after about three weeks of bombing. He said that the bombing of Afghanistan would continue – I wish I could remember the exact words, but it was something like ‘until the people of Afghanistan overthrow their government’. They bombed Afghanistan with the knowledge that there were about five million people, according to their estimates, who were at serious risk of starvation.”
So he believes that the attacks on Afghanistan were worse than those on Iraq? “Every crime is distinct. I mean, is it worse than invading South Vietnam in 1962? Is it worse than the Russian invasion of Afghanistan?”
Understand the crimes
Which brings us back to war-crimes trials. Did he seriously envisage Bush and Blair in handcuffs at The Hague? No: charging them would be symbolic. “What was important about the Nuremberg trials was not that they hung however many people it was, but that the German population were given the proper means to understand what the crimes were. I want their crimes to be fully understood, to be in elementary school textbooks, and ensure that those of our countries which tolerated these crimes should look themselves in the eye.”
Then we move on to Iran, and Chomsky’s methodical deconstruction of US and British policies there. In American eyes, he says, there’s only one event in US-Iranian history in the past half-century. “That’s 1979, when Iranians committed a crime: they threw out a tyrant installed by a US-British military coup, and they took hostages. And they had to be punished.
“Well, did anything else happen in the last half-century or so? Yes. The US and Britain overthrew the parliamentary government, installed a brutal tyrant, supported him right through the years of torture and violence. As soon as he was overthrown they turned to supporting Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, which killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians – many with chemical weapons provided by the US and others. Right after that they imposed sanctions which have crushed the population.
“That means that for over 50 years the US and Britain have been torturing the people of Iran.” Yet they remain defiant, Chomsky says, and for that they have to be punished. “Starting in the summer of 2003, two interesting things happened. First, all of a sudden, the reason for invading Iraq was not weapons of mass destruction. It was to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East and the world . . . But the other thing that happened which has been little noticed is that there was already the beginning of building up a government media campaign about Iranian nuclear weapons.
“And as Bush’s popularity declined, the intensity of this campaign increased. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I don’t think so. In fact, the Iranian alleged nuclear weapons are now providing a pretext which will be used for a permanent US presence in Iraq. They’re building the biggest embassy in the world in Baghdad which towers over everything, they’re building military bases. Is that because they intend to get out and leave Iraq to itself? No. If you’re staying in Iraq you have to have a reason. Well, the reason will be that you have to defend the world against Iran.”
Admiration and hatred
By now Chomsky’s assistant is knocking on the door and leaving it ajar, a signal that time is nearly up with the man the New York Times has called “arguably the most important intellectual alive today”. The leading monitor of academic journals says he is the most cited authority in the world today: yet that blend of admiration and hatred, of reverence and revulsion, runs as powerfully as ever through the US bloodstream when his name comes up.
Stanford’s Professor Paul Robinson wrote in the New York Review of Books that Chomsky has a “maddeningly simple-minded view of the world”, while Marxist-turned-neo-con pundit David Horowitz, co-editor of The Anti-Chomsky Reader, describes him as the “ayatollah of anti-Americanism”. Chomsky even figured on the list of targets of Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, and he is frequently given police protection, even on the MIT campus, though he insists he does not seek it.
He says, however, that when he takes his grandson to a baseball game he enjoys being part of mainstream America: “It’s my country,” he told me, with what I thought was just a hint of defensiveness. His latest book, though, defines his country as a failure. There are three main criteria for failed states, he says: unwillingness or inability to protect its citizens from violence, insistence that they are not answerable to international law or to any external consensus, and failure to implement true democracy.
The Bush administration, he believes, “has got no interest, or very little interest” in protecting American citizens from terrorism – containers coming into US ports, for example, are not inspected properly – “but the most serious threats are literal threats to survival, the threats of nuclear war and of environmental destruction”. And Bush is not protecting Americans against those either.
Showing scant respect for international law or external consensus, too, has a pedigree in the US going back over almost two centuries of expansionism. “There’s a lot of outrage about the Bush Doctrine, but what about the Clinton Doctrine? It said that the United States has the right to undertake unilateral use of force to protect key markets, resources and investments.”
The third crucial sign of America’s failure, he says, is that “there’s a huge gap between public opinion and public policy. Both political parties are well to the right of the population on a host of major issues, and the elections that are run are carefully designed so that issues do not arise.”
But Americans still voted overwhelmingly for either Bush or Kerry in 2004, didn’t they? “I don’t know if you watched the presidential debates. I didn’t but my wife [they have been married since 1949] did. She has a college PhD and taught for 25 years at Harvard and is presumably capable of following arguments. She literally couldn’t tell where the candidates stood on issues, and people didn’t because the elections are designed that way.” By whom? “The public relations industry, because they sell candidates the same way they sell toothpaste or lifestyle drugs.” Who are their masters? “Their masters are concentrations of private capital which invest in control of the state. That funds the elections, that designs the framework.”
That was all very well. But if we could wave a magic wand what would be the first thing President Chomsky would do? “I would set up a War Crimes Tribunal for my own crimes, because if I take on that position [I would need] to deal with the institutional structure and the culture, the intellectual culture. The culture has to be cured.”
The clearly much-practised assistant has knocked three times now, but Chomsky moves on to the “Fissban” treaty, “which would place the production of fissile materials under some kind of international control, so that then anybody could get access to them for nuclear power but nobody could use them for nuclear weapons. Unless that treaty is passed, the species will almost certainly destroy itself.”
The US, he explains, is willing to have a treaty “as long as it’s not verifiable”. The matter came to a vote in a UN committee in November 2004 and the result was 147-1 in favour, with two abstentions, he says. “The one was, of course, the United States. The abstentions were Israel, which reflects that they have to vote for the US – and the other was Britain. So it’s more important [for the Blair government] to be a spear-carrier than to save the species from destruction.”
And so we had come full circle, back to Britain the pillion passenger. By the time the assistant knocked a fourth time, I was starting to leave. In the corridor outside I spotted a board crammed with squiggles and formulae every bit as impenetrable as that encyclopaedic explanation of Chomsky’s work. It was precisely because he can plumb such academic depths, I mused as I wended my way back across the Charles river to Boston, that nobody should blithely dismiss Chomsky’s political views as those of a crackpot.
In fact, a thought came to me that will probably not only seem heretical to many Chomskyites but will also outrage the White House enough to get me sent to Guantanamo: what struck me was that even though Chomsky was brought up in a thoroughly Jewish household, went to Hebrew schools and camps and had what he calls a “visceral fear” of Catholics in childhood, there was something profoundly Christian about the thrust of his message to me that morning.
He loathed violence and aggression, that was clear; yet he sought vengeance only in a symbolic sense. Though passionate, he did not seem bitter. Maybe I saw him on a good day. But if there’s one virtue of the US to which Chomsky repeatedly returns it is its unique tolerance for free speech. And what better example of that could there be than to listen to a Hebrew-speaking, self-proclaimed libertarian socialist preaching the virtues of Christian pacifism in Bush’s America of 2006?