A New American Era? An Interview with Noam Chomsky on American Society, Politics and Foreign Policy

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Chronis Polychroniou

chomsky.info, February 28, 2009

Q1. The first one hundred days, the symbolic significance of which grew during Roosevelt’s administration, are supposed to be a benchmark in the success of a US president. In his first post-election interview, Obama said that he had been studying Roosevelt’s first one hundred days. Would you say that Obama’s early actions have set the tone for his administration and establish his priorities and leadership style?

A. That is a fair assumption, particularly because his opening days in office conform to his earlier selection of advisers and public stance. The notion of “success” I think should be qualified. Thus Reagan’s first 100 days were a “success” in initiating large-scale terrorist wars in Central America and a spend-and-borrow economic program without regulation that is at the root of the current financial crisis, destroying the core principles of international labor conventions in order to undermine the right to organize, expanding support for the Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq and his radical islamization program (by now recognized to be one of the major international crises), and much more. It was a “success” in terms of party managers and the business interests he represented. But for the country? The world?

Q2. Obama’s economic stimulus plan has failed so far to stir confidence among businesses and investors, nor, as far as I can see, is there anything in it to suggest that his administration is somehow committed to addressing the most serious flaws of the economic system so that it would at least provide a more equitable distribution of wealth. Attacking greed is hardly enough for reforming the system. Why is he still enjoying such high approval ratings?

A. In fairness, Obama is facing incredible problems. Thanks to the policies of his predecessors (plural) and the absurd reigning economic dogmas, the economy is in free fall, and it is widely recognized that a massive government stimulus is required if there is to be any hope of arresting and reversing it. In comparison to alternative proposals anywhere near the mainstream, his are quite realistic. So on this issue, popular support is understandable. Business and investors have not come up with a tenable alternative, and they themselves largely support the Obama program, though naturally they will try to get more for themselves. We are now watching the amusing spectacle of banks joining the vast lobbying efforts in Washington, using funds provided to them by Secretary of Treasure Paulson to lobby to gain a bigger piece of government largesse.

That is how the system works, and there are no moves towards modification of it, apart from where it is facing self-destruction, as in the collapse of the investment bank model and the ruins of “efficient market” doctrines.

Q3. Quite a number of studies are indicating that racism is on sharp decline in the US. Is this largely due to the profound demographic shifts taking place in American society?

A. I am not sure how sharp the decline is. As one indication, note that McCain won the white vote by a considerable margin, though in circumstances like those of the November 2008 election, one would expect the opposition party to win by a landslide. But to the extent that it is real, I think it is primarily a result of the civilizing effect of the activism of the 1960s and its aftermath. That has indeed changed the moral and cultural level of the society, significantly, while leaving institutions essentially intact. I do not happen to like any of the candidates in the November 2008 election, but it is important to bear in mind that 40 years ago, and also more recently, it was unthinkable that the two candidates in the Democratic primary would be an African-American and a woman.

Q4. Yet, class warfare remains as vicious and one-sided as ever. Neoliberal governance over the last thirty years, regardless if there was a Republican or a Democratic administration in place, has intensified immensely the processes of exploitation and induced ever-larger gaps gaps between haves and have-nots in American society. Moreover, I don’t see neoliberal class politics being on retreat in spite of the opportunities opening up as a result of the current crisis.

A. The business classes, which largely run the country, are highly class conscious. It is not a distortion to describe them as vulgar Marxists, with values and commitments reversed. It was not until 30 years ago that the head of the most powerful union recognized and criticized the “one-sided class war” that is relentlessly waged by the business world. It has succeeded in achieving the results you describe. However, neoliberal policies are in shambles. They have come to harm the most powerful and privileged (who only partially accepted them for themselves in the first place), so they cannot be sustained.

It is rather striking to observe that the policies that the rich and powerful adopt for themselves are the precise opposite of those they dictate to the weak and poor. Thus when Indonesia has a deep financial crisis, the instructions from the US Treasury Department (via the IMF) are to pay off the debt (to the West), to raise interest rates and thus slow the economy, to privatize (so that Western corporations can buy up their assets), and the rest of the neoliberal dogma. For ourselves, the policies are to forget about debt, to reduce interest rates to zero, to nationalize (but not to use the word) and to pour public funds into the pockets of the financial institutions, and so on. It is also striking that the dramatic contrast passes unnoticed, along with the fact that this conforms to the record of the economic history of the past several centuries, a primary reason for the separation of the first and third worlds.

Class politics is so far only marginally under attack. The Obama administration has avoided even minimal steps to end and reverse the attack on unions. Obama has even indirectly indicated his support for this attack, in interesting ways. Thus his first trip to show his solidarity with working people (called “the middle class,” in US rhetoric) was to the Caterpillar plant in Illinois. He went there in defiance of pleas by church and human rights organizations because of Caterpillar’s grotesque role in the Israeli occupied territories, where it is a prime instrument in devastating the land and villages of “the wrong people.” But it seems not even to have been noticed that, adopting Reagan’s anti-labor policies, Caterpillar became the first industrial corporation in generations to break a powerful union by employing strike-breakers, in radical violation of international labor conventions. That left the US alone in the industrial world, along with apartheid South Africa, in tolerating such means of undermining workers’ rights and democracy — and now I presume the US is alone. It is hard to believe that the choice was accidental. Furthermore, Obama has so far stayed clear of his campaign promises on the Employee Free Choice Act.

Q5. Indeed, Republicans and the Business Lobby are even using the current economic crisis to make further attacks on organized labor. Employee Free Choice (which would make it more feasible for workers of smaller businesses to unionize), explicitly supported by Obama while he was running for president, is being denounced by the Chamber of Commerce and the whole issue has been described by a Chamber strategist as “the epic battle between labor and business.” Really, wouldn’t it be odd if the bill failed to pass when the US president is presumably in support of it?

A. It would be odd if Obama and his backers (mostly the financial industries) supported the Act. But evidence for that is slight, as just noted. Obama’s budget proposals were presented as an effort to reverse at least slightly the state-corporate programs that have sharply enhanced inequality in the past 30 years. It is well known that a major way to reduce inequality (and to expand democracy) is to permit unionization, as most working people would prefer. But that option was scrupulously avoided in the economic programs and for the most part, in commentary about them.

Q6. There is a widespread belief at least among some well-known political strategists that issues do not define American elections–even if the rhetoric is that candidates need to understand public opinion in order to woo voters — and we do know of course that media provide a wealth of false information on critical issues (take the mass media’s role before and during the launching of the Iraq war) or fail to provide any information at all (on labor issues, for example). Yet, there is strong evidence indicating that the American public is aware and cares about the great social, economic and foreign policy issues facing the country. For example, according to a recently released University of Minnesota research study, Americans ranked health care among the most important problems facing the country. We also know that the overwhelming majority of Americans are in support of unions. Or that they judged the war against terror to be a total failure. In the light of all of this, what’s the best way to understand the relation between media, politics and the public in contemporary American society?

A. It is well-established that electoral campaigns are designed so as to marginalize issues and focus on personalities, rhetorical style, body language, etc. And there are good reasons. Party managers read polls, and are well aware that on a host of major issues, both parties are well to the right of the population — not surprisingly; they are, after all, business parties. Polls show that a large majority of voters object, but those are the only choices offered to them in the business-managed electoral system, in which the most heavily funded candidate almost always wins — including Obama, with his powerful funding base in the financial industries, which much preferred him to McCain.

Similarly, consumers might prefer decent mass transportation to a choice between two automobiles, but that option is not provided by advertisers — indeed, by markets. Ads on TV do not provide information about products; rather, they provide illusion and imagery. The same Public Relations firms that seek to undermine markets by ensuring that uninformed consumers will make irrational choices (contrary to abstract economic theories), seek to undermine democracy in the same way. And the managers are well aware of all of this. The main journal of the advertising industry, Advertising Age, gives an award every year for the best marketing campaign. For 2008, they gave the award to Obama, beating out Apple computers. Leading figures in the industry exulted in the business press that they have been marketing candidates like commodities ever since Reagan, and this is their greatest success yet, which they predict will provide a model for corporate executives and the marketing industry in the future.

You mentioned the Minnesota poll on health care. It is typical. For decades, polls have shown that health care is at or near the top of public concerns — not surprisingly, given the disastrous failure of the health care system, with per capita costs twice as high as comparable societies and some of the worst outcomes. Polls also consistently show that large majorities want a nationalized system, called “single payer,” rather like the existing Medicare system for the elderly, which is far more efficient than the privatized systems. When any of this is mentioned, which is rare, it is called “politically impossible” or “lacking political support” — meaning that the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and others who benefit from the current system, object. We gain an interesting insight into the workings of American democracy from the fact that in 2008, unlike 2004, the Democratic candidates — first Edwards, then Clinton and Obama — came forward with proposals that at least begin to approach what the public has wanted for decades. Why? Not because of a shift in public attitudes, which have remained steady. Rather, manufacturing industry is now suffering from the costly and inefficient privatized health care system, and the enormous privileges granted, by law, to the pharmaceutical industries. When a large sector of concentrated capital favors some program, it becomes “politically possible” and has “political support.” Just as revealing as the facts themselves is that they are not noticed.

Much the same is true on many other issues, domestic and international.

Q7. In 1988, you and Edward Herman published Manufacturing Consent and the “propaganda model” that its analysis was based on was extremely influential in the way we understood the political economy of contemporary mass media. If you were to write again on the topic, what parts, if any, of your focus and analysis would you change?

A. There is a second edition in 2002. In the introduction, we pointed out that the focus on anti-Communism as an ideological filter was too narrow, and should be replaced by other devices for mobilizing the public and inducing obedience: the “drug war,” “terrorism,” free market illusions, and others. We also pointed out that our focus on coverage of international affairs was misleading, because much the same conclusions hold with regard to domestic affairs, giving a few examples. And there are always new illustrations, of course. Virtually every day. When I am asked to speak about media, I rarely prepare. I take that morning’s newspaper and it usually provides ample illustrations. I have incidentally done the same in Europe, and find it is just as easy.

Q8. The biggest problem facing the United States today — and much of the world — is the economic crisis. What’s your own assessment of the situation and its causes? Do you think the world is headed towards another great depression?

A. That the crisis is very deep is hardly even controversial. No one knows how deep. One illustration today is that for the first time since 1938, General Electric reduced its dividend. Another, also today, is Japan’s announcement that industrial production has suffered the sharpest drop since World War II. Perhaps the stimulus packages, along with the bank bailouts and partial takeovers, will slow the decline and reverse it soon, as the chair of the Federal Reserve has just predicted cautiously for the United States. But no one knows.

The immediate cause of the crisis is the housing bubble, based substantially on very risky subprime mortgage loans along with exotic financial instruments devised to distribute risk, reaching such complexity that few understand who owes what to whom. The more fundamental reasons have to do with basic market inefficiencies. If you and I agree on some transaction (say, you sell me a car), we may make a good bargain for ourselves but we do not take into account the effect on others (pollution, traffic congestion, increase in price of gas, etc.). These “externalities,” so called, can be very large. In the case of financial institutions, the effect is to underprice risk by ignoring “systemic risk.” Thus if Goldman Sachs lends money, it will, if well-managed, take into account the potential risk to itself if the borrower cannot pay, but not the risk to the financial system as a whole. The result is that risk is underpriced. There is too much risk for a sound economy. That can in principle be controlled by sound regulation, but financialization of the economy has been accompanied by deregulation mania, based on theological notions of “efficient markets” and “rational choice.” As many have observed, several of the people who have primary responsibility for these destructive policies have now been chosen as Obama’s leading economic policy advisers (Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and others). Alan Greenspan, the great hero of a few years ago, has now conceded quietly that he did not understand how markets work — which is quite remarkable.

There are also other devices that lead to underpricing risk. Government rules on corporate governance provide perverse incentives: CEOs are highly rewarded for taking short term risks, and can leave the ruins to someone else, floating away on their “golden parachutes,” when collapse comes. And there is much more.

Whether the palliatives now being proposed can offer a short-term remedy is unclear. But the longer-term problems have yet to be addressed.

Q9. Hasn’t this crisis revealed once again that capitalism is a parasitic system?

A. It is worth bearing in mind that “really existing capitalism” is remote from capitalism — at least in the rich and powerful countries. Thus in the US, the advanced economy relies crucially on the dynamic state sector to socialize cost and risk while privatizing eventual profit — and “eventual” can be a long time: in the case of the core of the modern high tech economy, computers and the internet, it was decades. There is much more mythology that has to be dismantled if the questions are to be seriously posed.

Existing state capitalist economies are indeed “parasitic” on the public, in the manner indicated, and others: bailouts (which are very common, in the industrial system as well), highly protectionist “trade” measures that guarantee monopoly pricing rights to state-subsidized corporations, and many other devices.

Q10. US debt is already out of control and Obama’s economic stimulus plan will only take the US deeper into debt. What impact is the ballooning debt likely to have on the American economy, on the dollar, and on international investor’s confidence?

A. No one really knows. Debt has been far higher in the past, particularly after World War II. But that was overcome thanks to the remarkable economic growth under the wartime semi-command economy. If the current (far smaller) government stimulus spurs sustained economic growth, the debt could be controlled. And there are other devices, such as inflation. But the rest is very much guesswork. The main funders — primarily China, Japan, oil producers — might decide to shift their funds elsewhere for higher profits. But there are few signs of such developments, and they are not too likely. The funders have a stake in sustaining the US consumer economy for their own exports. There is no way to make confident predictions, but it seems clear that the entire international economy is in a perilous state.

Q11. You seem to believe, in contrast to so many others, that the US will remain a global economic, political and of course military superpower even after the current crisis — and I do have the same impression, as well, as the rest of the world economies are not only not in any shape to challenge America’s hegemony but are looking towards the US as a savior of the global economy. What do you see as the competitive advantages that US capitalism has over the EU economy and the newly emerging economies in Asia?

A. The current crisis in large measure originated in the US, but its major competitors — Europe and Japan — are suffering more severely, and the US remains the choice location for investors who are looking for security in a time of crisis. The advantages of the US are substantial. It has extensive internal resources. It is unified, an important fact. Until the civil war in the 1860s, the phrase “United States” was plural (as it still is in European languages). But since then the phrase has been singular, in standard English. Policies designed in Washington by state power and concentrated capital apply to the whole country. That is far harder in Europe. The London Financial Times reports (Feb. 26) that the European Commission task force just issued a report saying that “Europe needs new bodies to monitor systemic risk and co-ordinate oversight of financial institutions across the region’s patchwork of supervision,” though the task force, headed by a former French central banker, “stopped well short of suggesting a single European watchdog” — which the US can have any time it wants. For Europe, it would be “an almost impossible mission,” the task force leader said. The FT describes such a goal as Ôpolitically impossible, “a step too far for many member states reluctant to cede authority in this area.” There are many other advantages to unity. Some of the harmful effects of European inability to coordinate reactions to the crisis are discussed by Daniel Gros, Current History, March 2009.

The historical roots of these differences between Europe and the US are familiar. Centuries of savage conflict imposed a nation-state system in Europe, and the experience of World War II convinced Europeans that they must abandon their traditional sport of slaughtering one another, because the next try would be the last. So we have what political scientists like to call “a democratic peace,” though it is far from clear that democracy has much to do with it. In contrast, the US is a settler-colonial state, which exterminated the indigenous population and consigned the remnants to “reservations,” while conquering half of Mexico, then expanding beyond. Far more than in Europe, the rich internal diversity was destroyed. The civil war cemented central authority, and uniformity in other domains as well: national language, cultural patterns, huge state-corporate social engineering projects such as the suburbanization of the society, massive central subsidy of advanced industry by research and development, procurement, and other devices; and much else.

The new emerging economies in Asia have incredible internal problems, unknown in the West. We know more about India than China, because it is a more open society. There are reasons why it ranks 128th in the Human Development Index (about where it was before the partial neoliberal reforms); China ranks 88th, and the rank could be worse if more were known about it (http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/eco_hum_dev_ind-economy-human-development-index). That only scratches the surface. In the 18th century, China and India were the commercial and industrial centers of the world, with sophisticated market systems, advanced health levels by comparative standards, and so on. But imperial conquest and economic policies (state intervention for the rich, free markets rammed down the throats of the poor) left them in miserable conditions. It is notable that the one country of the South that developed was Japan, the one country that was not colonized. The correlation is not accidental.

Q12. On the foreign policy front, do you anticipate any substantive changes to take place now that Bush is gone and Obama occupies the White House? Let’s start with the war on terror. What shifts can we expect to see?

A. Obama, as he promised, is expanding intervention forces, and stepping up the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are peaceful options, some recommended right in the mainstream: in Foreign Affairs, for example. But these do not seem to be under consideration. Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s first message to Obama, apparently unanswered, was a request to stop bombing civilians. Karzai also informed a UN delegation that he wants a timetable for withdrawal of foreign (meaning US) troops. He is therefore out of favor in Washington, and has accordingly shifted from a media favorite to “unreliable,” “corrupt,” etc. — which is no more true than when he was feted as our “our man” in Kabul. Obama is sending many more troops and stepping up bombing on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border — the Durand line, an artificial border established by the British, which cuts the Pashtun areas in two and which the people have never accepted. Afghanistan in the past often pressed for obliterating it.

That is the central component of the “war on terror.” It is quite likely to stimulate terror, just as the invasion of Iraq did, and as resort to force does quite generally. Force can succeed. The existence of the US is one illustration. The Russians in Chechnya is another. But it has to be overwhelming, and there are probably too many tentacles to wipe out the terrorist monster that was largely created by Reagan and his associates, since nurtured by others.

Q13. Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to China glossed over alleged differences between Washington and Beijing on human rights and sought instead to drive the point home that cooperation is most essential in this period of a deep economic slump. Are US-Sino relations likely to improve or deteriorate in the midst of the current global economic crisis?

A. Clinton asked China to keep funding the US debt by purchasing Treasury securities. The US has a love-hate relation with China. China’s abysmal wages, working conditions, and lack of environmental constraints are a great boon to US and other Western manufacturers who transfer operations there, and to the huge retail industry, which can obtain cheap goods. And the US now relies on China, Japan, and others to sustain its own economy. But China poses problems as well. It does not intimidate easily. The Chinese have been standing up to the barbarians for thousands of years. When the US shakes its fist at Europe and tells Europeans to stop doing business with Iran, they mostly comply. China doesn’t pay much attention. That’s frightening. There is a long history of conjuring up imaginary Chinese threats. It continues.

Q14. Do you see China being in a position any time soon to pose a threat to US global interests?

A. Among the great powers, China has been the most reserved in use of force, even military preparations. So much so that leading US strategic analysts have called on China to lead a coalition of peace-loving nations to confront the US aggressive militarism that they think is leading to “ultimate doom” (John Steinbrunner and Nancy Gallagher, in the journal of the ultra-respectable American Academy of Arts and Sciences). There is little indication of any significant change in that respect. But China does not follow orders, and is taking steps to gain access to energy and other resources around the world. That constitutes a threat.

Q15. Indian-Pakistani relations pose clearly a major challenge in US foreign policy. Is this a situation the US can actually have under control?

A. To a limited extent. And the situation is highly volatile. There is constant ongoing violence in Kashmir — state terror by India, Pakistan-based terrorists. And much more, as the recent Mumbai bombings revealed. There are also possible ways to reduce tensions. One is a planned pipeline to India through Pakistan from Iran, the natural source of energy for India. Presumably, Washington’s decision to undermine the Nonproliferation treaty by granting India access to nuclear technology was in part motivated by the hope of undercutting this option, and bringing India to join in Washington’s campaign against Iran. It also may be a related issue in Afghanistan, where there has long been discussion of a pipeline (TAPI) from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and then India. It is probably not a very live issue, but quite possibly is in the background. The “great game” of the 19th century is alive and well.

Q16. During the murderous Israeli assaults in Gaza, Obama remained silent under the pretext that George Bush was still the president — even though as you have already commented elsewhere this fact did not prevent Obama from speaking out on other issues. But now he is being inside the White House already for quite sometime and the only major gesture he has made was a PR move by reaching out to Muslims in the Middle East through a television interview and declare that America is not their enemy. Is there any hope that under an Obama administration meaningful steps will be taken to ease the (US)Israeli-Palestinian conflict and move closer towards a two-state solution?

A. The TV interview was largely vacuous, but Obama’s first and only foreign policy declaration was not. The occasion was the announcement that George Mitchell would be his emissary — a good choice, if Mitchell is given any leeway. Obama reiterated routinely that our primary concern is the security of Israel, but he mentioned one proposal that he found constructive: the Arab League (Saudi) peace plan. He praised its call for normalization of relations with Israel, and urged the Arab states to proceed on that course.

Obama is an intelligent man, and doubtless knows that he was seriously misrepresenting the Arab League plan. It does call for normalization of relations with Israel, but only after a two-state settlement is established in accord with the international consensus that the US and Israel have blocked for over 30 years. By eviscerating the central content of the Arab League plan, Obama was making it very clear that he intends to keep to US rejectionism. He also of course continues to provide full support for Israel’s violence in Gaza and the West Bank, and its continued takeover of whatever it wants in the West Bank, leaving Palestinians scattered and hopeless. It is all strictly illegal, as he surely knows (as does Israel). Israel’s use of US arms is even illegal under US law. But those are marginal considerations in self-declared outlaw states, in which the educated classes are sufficiently conformist so that they do not raise unpleasant questions.

Q17. In many circles, there is a widespread impression that the Israel Lobby calls the shots in US foreign policy in the Middle East. Is the power of the Israel Lobby so strong that it can have sway over a superpower?

A. My friend Gilbert Achcar, a noted specialist on the Middle East and international affairs generally, describes that idea as “phantasmagoric.” Rightly. It is not the Lobby that intimidates US high tech industry to expand its investments in Israel, or that twists the arm of the US government so that it will pre-position supplies there for later US military operations and intensify close military and intelligence relations.

When the Lobby’s goals conform to perceived US strategic and economic interests, it generally gets its way: crushing of Palestinians, for example, a matter of little concern to US state-corporate power. When goals diverge, as often happens, the Lobby quickly disappears, knowing better than to confront authentic power. One of many examples took place last summer, right in the midst of the presidential campaign, when the Lobby’s power is supposed to be at its peak. Following Israel’s instructions, the Lobby worked hard to induce Congress to pass legislation (HR 362) virtually calling for a blockade of Iran, an act of war. They succeeded in rounding up many votes, but when the administration made it clear, quietly, that it did not want to be dragged into a war by Israel, the issue quickly vanished.

Q18. I agree totally with your analysis, but I think you would also agree that the Israel Lobby is influential enough, and beyond whatever economic and political leverage it carries, that criticisms of Israel cause hysterical reactions in the US — and you certainly have been a target of crazy Zionists for many years. To what do we attribute this intangible influence on the part of the Israel Lobby over American public opinion?

A. That is all true, though much less so than in recent years. It is not really power over public opinion. In numbers, by far the largest support for Israeli actions is independent of the Lobby: Christian religious fundamentalist. British and American Zionism preceded the Zionist movement, based on providentialist interpretations of Biblical prophecies. The population at large supports the two-state settlement, doubtless unaware that the US has been unilaterally blocking it. Among educated sectors, including Jewish intellectuals, there was little interest in Israel before its great military victory in 1967, which really established the US-Israeli alliance. That led to a major love affair with Israel on the part of the educated classes. Israel’s military prowess and the US-Israel alliance provided an irresistible temptation to combine support for Washington with worship of power and humanitarian pretexts. That is a large part of the reason for the hysteria that you describe. But to put it in perspective, reactions to criticism of US crimes are at least as severe, often more so. If I count up the death threats I have received over the years, or the diatribes in journals of opinion, Israel is far from the leading factor. The phenomenon is by no means restricted to the US. Despite much self-delusion, Western Europe is not very different — though, of course, it is more open to criticism of US actions. The crimes of others usually tend to be welcome, offering opportunities to posture about one’s profound moral commitments.

Q19. Turkey, probably aware that a place as a full member of the EU lies several decades away, is in the process of unfolding a new-Ottoman strategy towards the Middle East and Central Asia. Is this strategy likely to unfold with the collaboration or the opposition of the United States?

A. Turkey of course has been a very significant US ally, so much so that under Clinton it became the leading recipient of US arms (after Israel and Egypt, a separate category). Clinton poured arms into Turkey to help it carry out a vast campaign of murder, destruction, and terror against its Kurdish minority. Turkey has also been a major ally of Israel since 1958, part of a general alliance of non-Arab states, under the US aegis, with the task of ensuring control over the world’s major energy sources by protecting the ruling dictators against what is called “radical nationalism” — a euphemism for the populations. US-Turkish relations have sometimes been strained. That was particularly true in the build-up to the US invasion of Iraq, when the Turkish government, bowing to the will of 95% of the population, refused to join. That caused fury in the US. Paul Wolfowitz was dispatched to order the disobedient government to mend its evil ways, to apologize to the US and to recognize that its duty is to help the US. These well-publicized events in no way undermined Wolfowitz’s reputation in the liberal media as the “idealist-in-chief” of the Bush administration, utterly dedicated to promoting democracy. Relations are somewhat tense today too, though the alliance is in place. Turkey has quite natural potential relations with Iran and Central Asia and might be inclined to pursue them, perhaps raising tensions with Washington again. But it does not look too likely right now.

Q20. On the western front, are we likely now to see a revision of the plans for the eastward expansion of NATO? — which go back, by the way, to the era of Bill Clinton.

A. One of Clinton’s major crimes in my opinion — and there were many — was to expand NATO to the East, in violation of a firm pledge to Gorbachev by his predecessors after Gorbachev made the astonishing concession to allow a united German to join a hostile military alliance. These very serious provocations were carried forward by Bush, along with a posture of aggressive militarism which, as predicted, elicited a dangerous Russian reaction. Obama’s National Security Adviser, former Marine commandant James Jones, has been an outspoken proponent of expanding NATO to the East and South, and also of converting NATO into a more flexible intervention force to “safeguard energy security,” in the favored terminology. Obama himself has taken no stand on this, to my knowledge.

Q21. Are you aware of any plans, either in the US State Department or in the Defense Department, to use Georgia as a proxy for a confrontation with Russia?

A. I am sure there are all sorts of contingency plans. There are even contingency plans to invade Canada. It is one task of the military and intelligence to develop such plans, for virtually any imaginable contingency. But I do not know of any reason to take them very seriously in the case of Georgia. True, the US has armed Georgia and pressed for admitting it (and Ukraine) into NATO, a very serious provocation to Russia, which the EU has so far wisely deflected. Here too there is a background pipeline issue, intended to provide Europe with Central Asian gas bypassing Russia and Iran.

Q22. What are your views about the EU? It is still something of a pathetic entity, largely a trailblazer for neoliberalism and hardly a bulwark for US aggression, but you see any signs that it can emerge at some point as a constructive, influential actor on the world stage?

A. It could. That is a decision for Europeans to make. Some have favored taking an independent stance, notably De Gaulle. But by and large European elites have preferred passivity, following pretty much in Washington’s footsteps.

Q23. In his first state of the union, Obama spoke of “a day of reckoning” and a “crossroads of history.” Given all said above, is a new American era ahead?

A. There are no serious indications of any large-scale change. But the entire world situation is very tenuous, and it is unclear how popular forces will react to very serious crises. That includes not only the current economic crisis, which is severe and might turn out to be much worse, but also to real threats to survival of the species, such as those posed by nuclear weapons and environmental catastrophe. Or, for that matter, to the crisis of dysfunctional democracy. In the US, for example, 80% of the population feel that the government works for “the few and the special interests,” not for the people, and there are also more radical anti-corporate undercurrents. Prediction in human affairs has always been a very uncertain matter. Now as well.