Interventions: An interview with the author

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Booktalk.org

November 2007, Booktalk.org

BOOKTALK.ORG: You’ve been writing about current events and recent history for decades. How have your views changed over that time frame?

CHOMSKY: I’ve learned a lot, of course. And my views have changed accordingly. Though not in fundamental ways. There are a fair number of illustrations in Interventions, in fact. To mention one, until I read the Taylor-Kiernan revelations on the US bombing of Cambodia, I had no idea of the shocking orders that Kissinger transmitted — not easy to duplicate in the archives of any state — or of how instrumental the US was in creating the Khmer Rouge, matters only suspected before. And there’s a great deal more.

BOOKTALK.ORG: What do you think will happen if the US military withdraws from Iraq?

CHOMSKY: No one can say with any confidence. One possibility is that fairly consistent Iraqi opinion has been and still is correct in concluding that the presence of the occupying army is a major cause of internal violence — including the most recent “surge,” as revealed in the ABC-BBC-NHK comprehensive polls that were released on Sept. 10, the day before Petraeus’s testimony, but barely reported here. If so, withdrawal of the invading army would reduce tensions, and might lead to some kind of reconciliation among Iraqis. That’s also anticipated by a number of specialists. Or, at worst, it could be something like what happened when the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan and the US-backed fundamentalist Islamic terrorist forces took over, tearing the country to shreds, with such violence and destruction that the population welcomed the Taliban. There’s no way to know with any confidence.

BOOKTALK.ORG: Your essay about Hugo Chavez doesn’t mention concerns regarding democracy and civil liberties in Venezuela. What’s you attitude about those?

CHOMSKY: The important question, plainly, is what Venezuelans think about these matters. We have quite substantial evidence about this. One major source is the polls taken by Latinobarometro, the highly respected Chilean polling organization, which regularly monitors opinions in Latin America, in some depth. Their latest Latin America survey finds that Venezuela is tied for the lead with Uruguay in support for democracy and for the elected government, figures that have dramatically increased during the Chavez years. And that Venezuelans are well ahead of any other country in optimism about economic prospects. There is no shortage of bitter condemnations of Chavez in the media, but I did not see any of this reported.

My own feeling is that there is a mixture of quite promising forms of democratic participation, alongside of widespread corruption and authoritarian tendencies that are potentially dangerous. Civil liberties have been generally protected, even the harshest critics who are at all serious concede Some of the harshest criticism in the West concerns the government’s refusal to renew the license of RCTV (which now broadcasts only on cable). I agreed that it was wrong. I also agreed with Western commentary that “it couldn’t happen here.” For very good reasons. It couldn’t happen here because if there had been a military coup in the US that overthrew the government, disbanded Congress and the Supreme Court and every other democratic institution, and then was reversed by a popular uprising, and if CBS, say, had publicly supported the coup and grossly distorted what was happening so as to facilitate it, then CBS wouldn’t have had its license revoked 5 years later. Rather, the owners and managers would have long ago been in prison or probably would have received the death sentence. It’s fair to criticize violations of rights by an official enemy, but there should be some limits on hypocrisy.

BOOKTALK.ORG: What’s your opinion of the candidates running in the Democratic Presidential primary?

CHOMSKY: Keeping to the viable candidates, I am not impressed. Take Barack Obama, for example. In this morning’s (Nov. 2) New York Times, a front-page story reports his foreign policy stance, based on an exclusive interview. It opens by reporting that if elected he would offer “a possible promise not to seek ‘regime change'” if Iran stopped “acting irresponsibly” in Iraq, stopped supporting “terrorist activities,” and cooperated with the US on “nuclear issues.” Not a promise, just a possible promise in reward for “good behavior.” The threat of force is, of course, a serious violation of the UN Charter, but that seems not to be a matter of concern. The idea that Iran is acting “acting irresponsibly” in Iraq can indeed be raised: on the assumption that We Own the World, so that if we invade and occupy another country, any interference with our actions is “irresponsible.” On terrorism, and on “nuclear issues,” I’ll refer to the comments in Interventions, which barely scratch the surface, but suffice to illustrate how astonishing his statements are, except, once again, on the assumption that We Own the World. The candidates differ somewhat on other issues. No space here to run through the details. Of all the viable candidates, the positions that Edwards has put forth seem to me the best, or maybe it would be more accurate to say “the least objectionable.”

BOOKTALK.ORG: From “What is at Stake in Iraq”:

“Generally, however, public opinion-in Iraq, the United States or elsewhere-is not considered relevant to policy-makers, unless it may impede their preferred choices. These are just further indications of the deep contempt for democracy on the part of planners and their acolytes, standard accompaniments of a flood of lofty rhetoric about love of democracy and messianic missions to promote it.”

This selection could easily be written regarding any region of US foreign policy, not simply Iraq. Much of your book, Interventions, is a disclosure of how policy makers disregard and show outright contempt for the opinions of the public they are supposed to represent. Two questions: If the US does not reflect a representative democracy when planning and implementing its foreign policy- then what do you call it? Explain the mechanisms by which these policy planners dupe (if that isn’t the right word, what would you choose) the public into supporting their foreign policies?

CHOMSKY: The United States is a formal democracy, but only in part a functioning democracy. It is perhaps the most free country in the world, but there is a huge gap between public opinion and public policy on many crucial issues — and on many of these, I think public opinion is far more sensible and if followed, would lead the way to a better world. I won’t review the reasons, discussed to an extent in Interventions and in more detail elsewhere: recently in my book Failed States. Also in Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton, The Foreign Policy Disconnect, who show that public opinion tends to be coherent and fairly stable over time. Sometimes government-media propaganda dupes the public — on Saddam and 9/11, to take a dramatic example. We know the means very well: huge government-media propaganda exercises, which do have detectable effects. But quite often the public is not duped and continues to oppose the policy decisions of the government, the media, and elite opinion, as public opinion studies reveal.

BOOKTALK.ORG: Why the need for lofty rhetoric and messianic narratives? Who is their audience: the public, their victims, themselves?

CHOMSKY: All of the above. The US is by no means unusual in this respect, contrary to illusions about “American exceptionalism,” fostered in scholarship as well as general public discourse. Britain, France, and others have always been much the same, particularly in their days in the sun. That’s true even of the worst monsters: Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, etc. The rhetoric is quite commonly lofty and messianic — and probably even believed, so internal documents reveal. I’ve reviewed many of them in print, since the 1960s.

BOOKTALK.ORG: Also from, “What is at stake in Iraq”:

“Some observers fear that a U.S. pullout from Iraq would lead to a full-fledged civil war and the country’s deterioration. As for the consequences of a withdrawal, we are entitled to our personal judgments, all of them as uninformed and dubious as those of U.S. intelligence. But these judgments do not matter. What matters is what Iraqis think. Or rather, that is what should matter.”

Are all opinions regarding US pullout really equally uninformed and dubious? Are there any tools of logic, history or moral guidelines that prove more legitimate than others in this process?

CHOMSKY: There are some differences. People like Juan Cole and Hans von Sponeck are much better informed that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Condoleezza Rice, so the record reveals. There are simple moral guidelines, which are almost uniformly rejected. The most obvious is the principle of universality, the foundation of any moral code that can be taken seriously: what is right for me is right for you; what is wrong for you is wrong for me. There are lessons of history, which can be debated. The tools of logic should be uncontroversial.

BOOKTALK.ORG: What if the Iraqis, via legitimate process, want US forces to stay, even increase their numbers?

CHOMSKY: Aggressors should pay serious attention to the will of their victims. If Afghans in the 1980s had wanted the Russian invaders to stay, even increase their numbers, that should have been a factor in the Russian decision to withdraw. Incidentally, many very likely did, for example women in Kabul who gained many rights under the Russian occupation, and surely were not delighted at the actions of Reagan’s favorites, like the terrorist commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose form of entertainment was to throw acid in the faces of women he considered too liberated. But the question is academic, in both cases.

BOOKTALK.ORG: From, The Cold War Between Washington and Tehran:
“Iran For the United States, the primary issue in the Middle East has been and remains effective control of its unparalleled energy resources. Access is a secondary matter. Once the oil is on the seas it goes anywhere. Control is understood to be an instrument of global dominance.”

An important part of your thesis regarding US hegemony is its role in controlling energy resources in the Middle East. Your quote above distinguishes between control and access to oil in the region.

Does the American public make this same distinction, if not, why not?

CHOMSKY: I’ve never seen a study, but I doubt very much that the public makes the distinction. Assuming not, the reason would be clear. Commentary in media and journals rarely makes the distinction, even much scholarship, unfortunately. But the distinction is very clear and important.

Does US control of these resources necessarily equal global dominance; why not see it as needed protection, keeping these resources out of the hands of dictators, tyrants, and terrorists?

CHOMSKY: It doesn’t “necessarily” yield global dominance, but it is a crucial factor, as the British recognized explicitly a century ago, and US planners have recognized since the US became the dominant global power after World War II. We cannot seriously propose that the British and the US have sought to keep the resources out of the hands of dictators, tyrants, and terrorists. Quite the contrary. Both Britain and the US (and lesser actors) dedicated themselves to keeping the resources in such hands, as long as they were obedient clients. Simply look at their actions over the years — for example, supporting the Saudi Arabian tyranny, the most extreme fundamentalist Islamic state in the world; or their imposition of the rule of the Shah, a brutal tyrant and torturer, overthrowing Iran’s parliamentary government; or their unconstrained euphoria when the murderous dictator Suharto took power, destroying the parliamentary system, presiding over the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in a few months, and installing a regime of terror and violence, but opening the rich resources of the country, including oil, to Western exploitation — and remaining “our kind of guy,” as the Clinton administration described him, no matter how awful the crimes he committed (regularly with the support of the US and UK, among others).

But putting aside the fact that history dramatically refutes the contention, it is doubtless true that political leaders saw and see their acts as benign, in the best interests of the world. As I mentioned, that stance is close to universal, including the worst monsters.
We may also ask some more fundamental questions: (1) Do we want a world in which a great power is granted the authority to resort to force and violence to decide how the resources of the world should be controlled? (2) And if we do, do we want to select for that role the state that is regarded as the greatest threat to peace in the world, even in Europe, as international polls show? I presume the answer to (1) should be negative, leaving (2) moot, though with an answer that should need little elaboration.

BOOKTALK.ORG: “To Washington, Tehran’s principal offense has been its defiance, going back to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy. The grim U.S. role in Iran in earlier years is excised from history. In retribution for Iranian defiance, Washington quickly turned to support for Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran, which left hundreds of thousands dead and the country in ruins. Then came murderous sanctions, and under Bush, rejection of Iranian diplomatic efforts in favor of increasing threats of direct attack.”

It seems defiance against US hegemony is the primary motivator for US military interventions abroad, and Iran is no exception. Can you briefly explain what US hegemony means, and how it is presented to the US public by our elected officials?

CHOMSKY: Defiance is one factor, sometimes quite explicit. Thus internal documents of the Kennedy-Johnson years identify the threat of Castro, justifying large-scale US terror and economic strangulation, as Castro’s “successful defiance” of US policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine. Hegemony means the capacity to coerce and control others. It is never absolute, even under Stalin and Hitler. But it is quite real. It’s presented to the public as noble and benign, self-sacrifice in the interests of the suffering people of the world. But that is just replaying an old record. The same has been true, often in the same words, of other dominant powers — including the worst monsters, as I mentioned. I’ve reviewed many cases in print.

BOOKTALK.ORG: Can you elaborate upon the process of how the grim US role in Iran in earlier years is excised from history? How is it that reporters, commentators, and officials are all (almost universally in the mainstream and as elected representatives of both parties) unable to address this excised history? Are they all in collusion?

CHOMSKY: The process is quite straightforward, and has even been studied in scholarship. In my book Necessary Illusions, I review some of the sources, the most important being the careful study by Mansour Farhang and William Dorman, The US Press and Iran, reviewing in detail how the media suppressed extreme human rights violations under the US-backed tyrant, the Shah, while suddenly becoming passionate about human rights as soon as he was overthrown and Iran shifted from client to official enemy. That’s quite characteristic. Why? A simple and reasonable answer was given by George Orwell in his (unpublished) introduction to Animal Farm. Here he discussed how in free England, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force, leading to a situation which in this respect, he said, was not entirely unlike that of the totalitarian monstrosity he was satirizing. The primary reason is that the prevailing norms of the intellectual culture instill in the educated classes the understanding that there are certain things “it wouldn’t do to say” — or even to think. I think that if we introspect honestly we can all easily find illustrations.

BOOKTALK.ORG: Should US officials be held accountable for war crimes committed by Sadaam Hussein against Iran while receiving US support? What would have to happen before such jurisdiction could be enforced and accused individuals brought to justice?

CHOMSKY: If we accept the elementary moral principle of universality then there is no doubt that US officials should be held accountable for their conscious support for horrendous crimes, and even more so, for the crimes they commit themselves. We may recall, in this connection, the eloquent words of Justice Robert Jackson at Nuremberg, cited in Interventions, which explicitly address this question. What would have to happen before we could apply to ourselves the principles we sternly apply to others? Something like a moral revolution. That’s by no means impossible. There has been considerable progress in these respects over the years, though there is still a long way to go, as these examples illustrate.

BOOKTALK.ORG: “In the West, any wild statement of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, immediately gets circulated in headlines, dubiously translated. But as is well known, Ahmadinejad has no control over foreign policy, which is in the hands of his superior, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

What did you make of the debate between Columbia Univ. President Lee Bollinger and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Could such an event had been handled differently, with better results, how so? What if the setting were MIT and you were asked to debate important global issues with the Iranian President; what are some questions you would like him to answer?

CHOMSKY: The most apt comment I saw on President Bollinger’s performance, and the media reaction, was by a correspondent in Asia Times, expressing, I suspect, prevailing opinion outside the West:

An even more appalling measure of Western arrogance … is the diatribe with which the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, chose to “greet” his guest, a head of state. Were President Bush to be greeted in the same manner in any university in the developing world – and motives would abound also to qualify him as a “cruel, petty dictator” – the Pentagon would have instantly switched to let’s-bomb-them- with-democracy mode.

To which we may add that Bush’s crimes vastly exceed anything attributed to Ahmadinejad, by a huge margin in fact.

Doubtless it could have been handled differently, and we need not speculate. Columbia University alone provides many illustrations. A few hours before Ahmadinejad’s talk at Columbia, the University welcomed the president of Turkmenistan, well known as a vibrant democracy with a stellar human rights record and plenty of natural gas, which the US covets. No diatribe was considered necessary. Not long before, President Bollinger welcomed the military dictator of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. He opened his fulsome welcome to the dictator by saying that Rarely do we have an opportunity such as this to greet a figure of such central and global importance. It is with great gratitude and excitement that I welcome President Musharraf and his wife to Columbia University. Mr. President, as you share your thoughts and insights you will give our students, the leaders of tomorrow, first-hand knowledge of the world their generation will inherit. President Musharraf, we thank you for being with us today. And we welcome you to Columbia University. To enhance the imagery, while Bollinger was berating Ahmadinejad, Musharraf’s riot police were firing tear gas and beating lawyers and human rights activists protesting Musharraf’s plans to have himself reelected while serving as chief of the military. And he has now moved on to institute martial law.

Keeping to Iran, shortly after the Shah was installed by the US-UK military coup, overthrowing the Iranian parliamentary system, Columbia University invited the tyrant to deliver the university’s 1955 Gabriel Silver Lecture Dedicated to International Peace, also granting him an honorary degree. In his lecture, the Shah urged that We must be strong enough internally and externally so that the temptation of subversion from within, supported from without, can be obliterated. The New York Times report records no embarrassment. Its headline reads: Shah Praises U.S. for Peace Policy; Iran’s Ruler Calls on West to Bolster Independent Nations — as the US and Britain had just done with such grace and nobility in his country.

So yes, there are many ways to greet tyrants and torturers, while conforming to state doctrine.

No one was invited to debate Ahmadinejad. He was simply subjected to diatribes and ridicule. Perhaps the most infantile vulgarity was reached by the New Yorker, with its front cover showing Ahmadinejad in a toilet with his foot reaching to the next stall. Ahmadinejad’s silly remarks about homosexuals in Iran elicited particular ridicule here, deeply offending Westerners, who have such a stellar record in defending gay rights ever since gaining independence centuries ago. Who can imagine that President Bush could have been governor of a state that outlawed sodomy, for example. And who can imagine that the British government would have murdered the very distinguished mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing by forcing him to undergo hormone therapy for his “disease,” leading to suicide. The year was 1953, which has a certain significance in US/UK-Iran relations.

If there had been a debate scheduled, and I had been asked to participate, I would have refused. But the possibility is so remote that it need not be discussed.

BOOKTALK.ORG: Can you share your thoughts about Hugo Chavez and Osama Bin Laden using your book and name in speeches they’ve given that criticised US foreign policy? Chavez brought your Hegemony or Survival book to the podium for his presentation to the UN General Assembly; and Bin Laden pointed to you as one example of enlightened US perspective on world affairs. Do you wish they hadn’t, or is it irrelevant to you, or do you find some value in their efforts to utilize your work when addressing the world?

CHOMSKY: Bin Laden expressed his approval of my opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Should we therefore approve of the invasion? He also warned of the threat of global warming. Should we therefore trade in our bicycles for Humvees? Bin Laden went well beyond his casual reference to me in recommending a book by Michael Scheuer, the ultra-hawkish CIA operative who condemns Bush for his “dainty” approach to the use of force and urges that we run roughshod over civil liberties if necessary. I doubt that Scheuer cared (or was asked). Why should I have any thoughts about the matter? The same with Hugo Chavez. If he wants to recommend my book, why should I care one way or another?

BOOKTALK.ORG: Throughout history powerful civilizations have collapsed. It seems inevitable that the United States will do the same in time. What are your predictions as to if, when and why the US will suffer a similar fate?

CHOMSKY: There is nothing inevitable in history. Predictions about human affairs hardly have a stellar record of accuracy, for very good reasons. Too much depends on will and choice. More important than speculation is action to help shape the future.

BOOKTALK.ORG: How can an idea like Anarchism (in all of its complexity- specifically anarcho-syndicalism, or say, participatory economics) become more palatable to the US electorate?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think it’s particularly complex. The ideas have strong roots in American history, matters that I and others have discussed. I think they are barely below the surface for so-called ordinary people. As for how to bring these (or other) ideas closer to the focus of attention and activism, there are no magic keys, just the old familiar ways: education, organization, action as appropriate to circumstances. It’s often worked in the past, and I presume will in the future as well.

BOOKTALK.ORG: What is the most reasonable, or sane, or wise (you pick the term) approach to nuclear weapons, or any weapons of mass destruction; and what are the risks taken by US policy makers in that arena?

CHOMSKY: Eighty percent of Americans believe that the US should live up to its legal obligation under the Nonproliferation Treaty to undertake “good faith” efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, along with other nuclear powers That makes very good sense, I believe. Policy makers have sometimes moved in that direction: the Nunn-Lugar initiatives are one important case in point. But they have often acted to enhance the risk of “apocalypse soon,” to quote Robert McNamara’s warning. The Bush administration notoriously so. That should be unnecessary to review once again (a number of cases are mentioned in Interventions, more elsewhere).

BOOKTALK.ORG: What are your thoughts regarding Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”: his sharing of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, the basic premise, his prescription for solutions, the political baggage he carries into the discussion; fundamentally, are you in agreement with the conclusions reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change- if so, what will need to change economically to turn the tide away from climate catastrophe?

CHOMSKY: Gore has played a constructive role in bringing these crucial issues to the general public. I do not have the competence to render an independent judgment, but I think it is fair to assume that the IPCC conclusions are cogent, and very likely not sufficiently alarmist, as a number of serious scientists have since observed. There should be determined efforts to mitigate the likely crisis — perhaps catastrophe — by conservation, development of renewable non-harmful energy sources, and changes in social and economic organization in ways that would be appropriate even if there were no environmental crisis looming. No space here to spell out details, but at least general guidelines should be familiar.