Noam Chomsky interviewed by Uprising Radio

Uprising Radio, May 30, 2007

Kolhatkar: In your April 2004 op-ed entitled “Iraq: The Roots of Resistance,” you describe the false pretext of democracy that the Bush administration used to justify its war and then in March 2005 you lauded the real success of the Iraqi elections in that the US had actually allowed them to take place. Now a few years later what is the status of real democracy in Iraq?

Chomsky: The elections of January 2005 were, as I probably wrote there in my view, a real triumph of non-violent resistance. The US was trying in every possible way to prevent elections and finally had to give in just because it could not face a mass, popular non-violent resistance, which was far more effective than the insurgency. So it allowed the elections to take place but immediately moved to subvert them. And that’s the situation we’re in. I mean, you can’t really have a functioning democracy under military occupation. You can have some elements of it but not much. Military occupation is too harsh. I mean, it’s hard enough to find a functioning democratic system in a country that deprived of Democratic elections. Paris system, for example, of military occupation, their system has extremely serious flaws and in Iraq, it’s far harsher. The elections as they took place finally were, as many observers, have pointed out it was kind of a census more than an election. It was sectarian voting and the conflicts are by now so extreme that the political system is kind of a shadow.

Kolhatkar: So, when you talk about the elections themselves not necessarily being that meaningful, what about the aspirations of Iraqis and how do we here in the United States, who are against the war in Iraq, count on the democratic aspirations of the Iraqis? Increasingly, it seems as though Iraqis do not have much space to exercise their democratic rights.

Chomsky: They do not have space under a military occupation. I mean, if the United States was occupied by Iran, would we be able to run a democratic society? I mean, it’s not a matter of counting on Iraqis. We have responsibilities to them and the responsibilities are clear. The responsibilities are to, first of all, pay enormous reparations, not just for the war but for the murderous, sanctioned regime that preceded it and fatuous support for Saddam Hussein during the ‘80s. We have plenty of obligations in that regard. We have an obligation to hold the guilty here accountable for crimes, crime of aggression being the main one. And we have a responsibility to pay attention to the victims and it’s not a secret what they want. Last fall, the State Department released a poll showing that about 2/3 of Baghdadis want the US forces out right away in fact and about 70% of the rest of the country wanted them out within a narrow time frame, like about a year or less. That would be beginning or even ending right now. That’s all of Iraq. If you look at Arab Iraq, the figures are much higher. The overwhelming majority felt the US troops are increasing the level of violence and a large majority felt that US troops are legitimate targets of attack. And those figures are increasing, as they say, higher in the areas where the troops are deployed in Arab Iraq. Even without such figures, an invading army has no rights at all and as we’re counting on Iraqis we just have to give them the space to do whatever they can do with the chaos and destruction that’s been created by the invasion.

Kolhatkar: I noticed in your op-eds, and in your writing and speaking generally, you cite the results of polls like this very often, bringing up what exactly Iraqis want and what they have said about the occupation, much more so than we hear in the mainstream media. Can you comment on the mainstream media’s downplaying of the aspirations of Iraqis?

Chomsky: They’re available in other sources too. For example, Iraq has a very lively, courageous labor movement which has managed to survive the occupation miraculously. The United States, when they invaded, reinstated, in fact imposed again Saddam Hussein’s harsh anti-labor laws and Iraqi workers have been resisting. Oil workers for example have bitterly condemned the oil bill that the United States is trying to force the Iraqi parliament to accept and workers’ organizations are struggling elsewhere. We can learn about that but you won’t find much in the press. I think the reason is—it’s not a matter of simply not reporting this or that and if you look carefully you can find information here and there. It’s the whole framework that’s just outlandish. Just to illustrate it: a week or two ago, Condoleezza Rice was asked what she thought at a press conference the best way out, what would be the solution for Iraq and she said something like this. She said, ‘Well it’s obvious that foreign forces should be withdrawn and foreign arms should be eliminated from the country.’ Of course, she was talking about Iranians but I didn’t hear a—I was waiting to see if I would see if I would see a word of comment somewhere saying, ‘Wait a minute. There are foreign forces in Iraq and there are foreign arms—and they’re our’s.’ But I couldn’t find a comment, maybe you could. I repeatedly brought them up at talks. First, people don’t notice anything when I say it and then when you point it out them they say of course, it’s obvious. All of this is based on a presupposition which sort of determines the entire framework of reporting. It’s unspoken but it’s accepted and it’s deep. The presupposition is “We own the world.” And therefore her statement makes sense. US forces can’t be foreign forces anywhere. If we invade Canada, we wouldn’t be foreign forces. Since we own the world anyway and do so by right, nothing—our forces, our arms can’t be foreign anywhere. I mean right now there are—just take the last couple of days. Read the headlines. They’ve had discussions about—A lot of news about the first discussions between, meetings between the United States and Iran. How are they framed? Well, here’s one headline that I clipped that happens to be in front of me from a national newspaper. “After talks, US seeks action by Iran.” Is that the issue in a country that is under foreign occupation? You see action but the invaders ask for action from someone else. That’s not considered strange in the United States. Because we’re there by right. And everything we do is right by necessity and there maybe some mistakes here and there but basically, it’s ours, we’re there. And if anyone’s interfering, it’s their problem, they’re the ones who are the criminals. So whether Iran is interfering or not, who knows? That’s what the debate is about. But that’s not the right debate. And it’s that framework of interpretation and understanding that colors all commentary—not just the media but the journals and so on.

Kolhatkar: One of the parts of the world that we seem to be losing our grip over is Latin America. And you talk about that in several of your op-eds. “South America: The Tipping Point,” “Latin America declares its independence and alternatives for the Americas,” etc.You talk about the increasing independence of the Latin American countries from the US. One of those avenues is through joining Mercosur. How optimistic are you that Mercosur is a viable economic path for Latin America and will the United States allow these countries to pursue their own path to shake off the shackles of recent US imperialism?

Chomsky: Well, certainly the United States is not going to allow it easily to happen. On the other hand, Mercosur has not very bright prospects right now. Too much internal antagonism, it hasn’t gotten off the ground. It might and there are steps towards it. And there are further steps. One of the other essayist discusses a very important meeting that took place which I don’t think we received any report in the US. At Cochabamba, Bolivia last December, there was a meeting of Latin American and South American leaders. [They] patched up differences, laid plans for a kind of an European union-style federation for closer integration and cooperation, constructive proposals. Cochabamba is more than a symbolic place. That’s the center of successful resistance against World Bank, US corporate efforts to essentially take over the economy. There’s major struggle there over attempts by the World Bank, basically US accessory to privatized war. I think Banktel was the company that was involved and was in fact driven out by popular resistance. So Cochabamba means something and the meeting means something, therefore I suppose it wasn’t reported. Can the US stop these developments? Well, you know, things are not the way they used to be. So just go back to the early 1960s. At that time, there was also kind of a popular wave of oppositions spreading around Latin America for independence, for overcoming extraordinary internal conflicts. This is a very class-ridden society, some of the worst inequality in the world, the tiny ruling elite—mostly white, there’s a race-class correlation—and a huge mass of the rest who are suffering bitterly. And there were attempts to overcome this. At that point, the US did have weapons. John F. Kennedy’s administration organized this, stimulated a military coup in Brazil, the most important country, which took place shortly after the sad president’s assassination had already been planned. It installed the first of the national security states, neo-Nazi-style states that plagued and then spread throughout the continent. Uruguay. Chile’s a famous case. Ecuador, Peru, everywhere. Argentina was a particularly hideous one. We finally ended up in Central America in the ‘80s, with the US terrorist wars. And it had in fact beat it down with murder, terror, brutal repression. Kennedy also initiated the counterinsurgency operation, the state terror operations. The first in Columbia where he sent a mission, a special forces mission to advise literally paramilitary terror against what were called “the known Communist supporters”—that means: priests organizing peasants, human rights activists, union leaders and so on. And that again still goes on, spread through the atmosphere. Well, the US can’t do that now. The last time they tried to support a military coup was in 2002 in Venezuela when the US backed a military coup that briefly overthrew the government, dismantled Parliament, threw out the Supreme Court. Highly praised in the United States, highly praised and in fact supported by Venezuelan media which amazingly were allowed to function after the coup was overthrown. In the United States, if CBS supported a military coup, they’d be lined up before a firing squad and dispatched without trial, probably. Now there is a major fuss because Venezuela’s not renewing the license of the main station that supported the coup. The US had to back off, first of all, because the coup was overthrown from within but also because of extensive protest from most of Latin America. Democracy is taken more seriously than it is here. And it’s not that they’re giving it up. The US training of Latin American officers is probably at the highest—it’s gone up sharply and maybe at the highest level, even through the Cold War. And they’re being trained for what’s called the “control of the radical populism,” and we know what the means in the context. But whether they can use that weapon or not is not clear. And also the economic weapon, the other major weapon, has been greatly weakened. The IMF particularly, the International Monetary Fund, which is virtually a branch of the US Treasury, has held much of the continent in a stranglehold through—as creditor’s community enforcers, one of its directors calls it. And they’re freeing themselves from that. Argentina’s president announced a year or two ago that, ‘We’re ridding ourselves of the IMF, paid off the debt, restructured and paid off the debt.’ The same with Venezuela. Brazil in a different way did the same. Bolivia will do the same. Probably Ecuador. Country after country has simply been building up reserves, getting rid of the debt, getting rid of the IMF. The IMF is in trouble now. That weapon of control has greatly weakened. For Latin America to overcome 500 years of one or another form of colonization and of internal disarticulation between tiny, wealthy elite and the mass of impoverished people—that’s not going to be easy. But there are steps towards it as there were in the early ‘60s. And this time, the steps cannot just be crushed by force.

Kolhatkar: Finally, Professor Chomsky, these op-eds that we’ve been discussing—gathered for the first time in this book “Interventions”—are not op-eds that Americans regularly have the chance to read. But people in other countries do. Why is that?

Chomsky: We cannot expect the media to try to destroy themselves. They’ll allow a little bit of dissent and criticism. And in fact, in self-criticism, I could do more–

Kolhatkar: Such as?

Chomsky: If I devoted myself to it. But there’s a question of—that would mean I do less of this, less of speaking, less of traveling around and so on. So you pick and choose. But in general, what you say is correct there. And it’s not just me. Do you read op-eds by Edward Herman, by Alex Cockburn, by dozens of other people I could mention. No, you don’t. Do you read Robert Fisk’s reporting on the Middle East? Patrick Cockburn’s reporting on Iraq? No, you don’t. Occasionally, you may get a word here and there. But that’s not the picture the media want to present. To go back to our first few moments, they do not want op-eds that will point out that everything, all discussion that is going on in the United States, virtually all the media, the journals, everywhere, is based on assumptions so outlandish that if any other country produced them, we’d collapse and ridicule or maybe nuke them or something. Namely, the idea that we own the world. It’s extremely hard to find any discussion or commentary that does not tacitly accept that it isn’t ridiculous unless you accept that, as in the examples we mentioned. There’s no interest in having that pointed out and hammered home day after day. The media are not monolithic. It’s not a totalitarian system and you can learn a lot from them. But you can’t disregard the institutional structure that shapes their character, and it’s not just the media. The same is true with journal with opinion, with most academic scholarship. In fact, just to end with George Orwell, who talked about this 60 years ago. Everyone’s read “Animal Farm,” but almost nobody has read the introduction to “Animal Farm” because it wasn’t published. Until much later, it was unpublished papers. “Animal Farm” as he pointed out is a satiric, critical denunciation of the totalitarian enemy, which deserved it. But his introduction was he said about free England. And he said in free England, ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. And he went on to discuss it a little bit and he ended up with a very brief explanation, a couple of sentences in which he—which were to the point. He said first of all, the press is owned by wealthy men—we should now say major corporations—which have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And secondly, and in my view more important, he says it’s good education. When you’ve gone through the best schools, when you’ve graduated from Cambridge or Oxford, you simply have instilled into you the understanding that there’s certain things it wouldn’t do to say or even to think. For example, it wouldn’t do to think that when Condoleezza Rice says, ‘Foreign forces have to be withdrawn from Iraq,’ she’s not referring to us because we can’t be foreign forces since we own the world. It wouldn’t do to think that or to say it. And that’s just deeply instilled into you by a massive system of indoctrination. And to the extent that it enters—that you’re even conscious of it, they wouldn’t permit it.

Kolhatkar: Well, Professor Chomsky, I want to thank you very much for joining us today.

Chomsky: Glad to be with you.