Noam Chomsky interview

Noam Chomsky interviewed by George McLeod

The Phnom Penh Post newspaper, March 27, 2009

Q. Top Khmer Rouge (KR) leaders are going on trial in Cambodia. You have some history with Cambodia and have written extensively on the KR. Do you believe a United Nations trial is the best way forward, or should it be left to the Cambodian people?

A. I think it should be left to the Cambodian people. I can’t imagine a UN, international trial. But then it shouldn’t be limited to the Cambodians — after all, an international trial that doesn’t take into account Henry Kissinger or the other authors of the American bombing and the support of the KR after they were kicked out of the country — that’s just a farce — especially with what we now know about the bombing of Cambodia since the release of the Kissinger-Nixon tapes, and the release of declassified documents during the Clinton years. There has been a very different picture of the scale and intensity of the bombing and the genocidal scale of it. For an international trial to omit this would be scandalous.

Q. How far down the chain of command should the prosecutions go?

A. I think that’s a decision for Cambodians to make –the questions should be: should [the prosecutions] be limited to KR criminals, or should it include criminals from the Lon Nol regime, or later, but those are decisions the Cambodian need to make.

You can make a case for an internationally-run trial, but as I said, it would be absolutely farcical if it was restricted to Cambodians.

The records say that the US wanted to “use anything that flies against anything that moves” [during the bombing of Cambodia] , which led to five times the bombing that was reported before, greater than all bombing in all theatres of WWII, which helped create the Khmer Rouge.

So to try to excuse their crimes from the broader picture may be sensible for Cambodians who are trying to find some internal justice and reconciliation, but for the broader picture, it’s simply farcical.

Q. So you think US leaders should be tried in connection with the crimes of the DK regime?

A. Not just in the context of the DK regime — that’s afterwards, I think supporting the KR after the Democratic Kampuchea regime, after they were kicked out — or supporting the Chinese invasion to punish Vietnam for the crime of driving them out, that’s a crime in itself. But the much worse crime was by Kissinger-Nixon, and its pretty hard to disagree with analysts like Ben Kiernan … who released the documentation during the Clinton years — their conclusion was that this bombing, which really had genocidal intent — anything that flies against anything that moves — essentially changed the KR from a small group into a mass army of what they call enraged peasants bent on revenge. How could you omit that when you are discussing the Khmer Rouge atrocities?

Q. Are you saying the KRT is a show trial?

A. These trials altogether have a very strange character — the most serious of all the tribunals since WWII was the Nuremberg trials, and that was a well-designed, carefully executed legal proceeding.

But if you look at it closely, it was a farce — that was implicitly conceded to allow the Nazi war criminals to be tried. They were some of the worst monsters in history — and there is no doubt they were guilty — they had to define a notion of war crime, and it was post-facto — they were being tried for crimes after they committed them.

The trial had a very clear definition of war crime — it was crimes that you committed, and that [the allies] didn’t.

So for example, the bombing of urban centres was not considered a crime and the reason is very explicit — the allies did more of it than the Germans.

The bombing of Japan frankly levelled the country and was not considered a crime because [the allies] did it. In fact, German war criminals were able to exonerate themselves if their defence was able to demonstrate that their counterparts in the West did the same thing.

For example, a German submarine admiral who did commit war crimes by normal standards was freed from those charges when he brought into evidence testimony from an admiral in the British and American navy saying Ôyeah that’s what we did too’. This was recognised, and chief prosecutor Jackson, he made a very eloquent speech to the tribunal where he said we were handing the defendants here a poisoned chalice, and if we sip from it, we must suffer the same punishment or else the trial is meaningless.

Well, we have sipped from that chalice numerous times since — the chief crime was the crime of aggression — the supreme international crime, and count the times the US and Britain have been guilty of outright aggression. Have they been tried?

It’s a farce — victor’s justice — and if you run through the rest of the trials, they pretty much have the same properties. In fact, I can’t think of one that has been honest in this respect — the only ones I can think that have been honest are the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions like in South Africa, El Salvador or Guatemala, where they brought out what happened and identified the perpetrators. And in many cases, it was done very honestly, and by the victims — they’re the ones that testified.

Q/ Then why are the KR on trial and not other murderous political leaders? Some Israeli generals for example have been accused of crimes against humanity as well.

A. An Israeli general would never be tried because they are backed by the US. These things reflect power systems. Very often the people that are tried deserve to be tried and sentenced, but the structure of the trials has exonerated the powerful.

In fact the position is extreme — the US is the most powerful country in the world and it’s also the most extreme in rejecting any form of judicial control — the US is the only country that rejected a World Court decision that rejected the unlawful use of force. And that’s why an Israeli general can’t be tried — if an Israeli was brought to the Hague, the US might invoke Europeans call The Netherlands Invasion Act. The US has legislation authorising the President to use force to rescue any American brought to the Hague.

Q. So you’re saying that this trial is not about justice?

A. There is an element that it’s about justice … You take Nuremberg again; there is no doubt that the accused were guilty — but is it justice? You take the foreign minister Ribbentraup — one of the crimes for which he was sentenced, was that he supported a pre-emptive strike against Norway. Well, at a time Norway was a threat to Nazi Germany of course, and he ordered a pre-emptive strike. But what did Colin Power do? Iraq was no threat.

Q. You were heavily criticised for some of your views of the KR, and some accused you of being favourable to the KR. Were you unfairly criticised?

A. It’s ridiculous — in fact, there has been a massive critique of some of things that Edward Herman and I wrote — and my view is that they were some of the most accurate things that were written in history.

Nobody has been able to find a missed comma, which is not surprising. Before we published the chapter — we had it reviewed by most of the leading specialists on the topic, who made some suggestions, but basically nothing.

Our main conclusion was: You have to tell the truth — don’t lie about our crimes denying them, and don’t lie about their crimes exaggerating them. In fact, what we actually did … the main thesis is a comparison between Cambodia and East Timor. And it’s a natural comparison — massive atrocities going on in the same part of the world — the same years — East Timor went on for another 25 years afterwards, and relative to population, they were about at the same scale. And what we found was that there was massive lying, but in opposite directions. In the case of East Timor, it was ignored and denied. In the case of Cambodia, it was wild accusations without a particle of evidence. So what was the fundamental difference between the two cases — in Indonesia we were responsible, and we could have done something. But in the other case, an enemy was responsible.

Q. But at the end of the East Timor occupation in the Clinton years, didn’t the US urge Indonesia to pull out of East Timor?

A. Absolutely not — those are some of the most grotesque propaganda lies of the current period — the US supported the invasion fully — it provided decisive support for it, military, diplomatic and so on, and the British joined it, and it started to peak in 1978, and the massacres escalated in 1999, right before the referendum, the US continued to support it fully, Britain continued to support it fully, and they were much worse than anything reported in Kosovo at the same period. And the US continued to support it, even at the height of the massacres in Dili in late August, 1999 — finally, Clinton came under such intense domestic pressure — much from the right wing and the Catholic Church, that he just told the Indonesians quietly, “okay, the game is over” and they went home — instantly. That shows what could have been done for the past 25 years. And Britain lagged — it kept supplying Indonesia with military hardware, even after the UN peacekeeping force went. I mean, these are the most outrageous claims.

Q. A major trade delegation recently visited Cambodia from Israel. Should Cambodia be embracing this, or do you back a boycott of Israeli trade and investment?

A. It’s the same moral issue that arises all the time — even with the trials. I mean yes, Israel is doing terrible things. Why? Because the US is supporting it — its like Indonesia and East Timor — as soon as Clinton told the Indonesians that its over — they didn’t have bomb or boycott — they just told them its over,. They withdrew instantly. If the US stopped providing decisive military, economic, ideological support, Israeli couldn’t do what it’s doing. Well why doesn’t anyone talk about boycotting the US? Because it’s too powerful.

Q. You seemed to defend the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, despite UN resolutions passed against the Vietnamese. In contrast, you criticise the Israelis for their occupation on the grounds of UN resolutions passed against the Israelis. Why were you able to look the other way with the Vietnamese?

A. I didn’t defend it, I criticised it. If you look at that same book that Herman and I wrote in 1979 — it criticises the invasion. It’s not a very harsh criticism because it did have a very positive consequence — it got rid of the KR, and if you look at it, the Vietnamese had plenty of provocation — the KR were attacking across the border and killing Vietnamese. By our standards it was fully justified, nevertheless, we did criticise it. If you want to look at humanitarian interventions since the war — I mean interventions that had a humanitarian consequence whatever their motive was — there are really only two major examples. The Indian invasion of East Pakistan in 1971 and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. And they are never touted because the US was against them.

Q. You have obviously been one of the top critics of US policy — do you think the Obama administration marks a change from past administrations?

A. I can’t see anything — I mean he is escalating the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I mean Bush started it in 2004, but he is continuing it — there is no indication that I can see. I mean the Bush administration was kind of off the spectrum — they were extreme in their arrogance and brazen contempt for the world. But the second Bush term kind of moderated it — they kicked out the more extreme people — Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and it sort of went more towards the centrist position.

And Obama is moving forward toward the familiar centrist position — he is very misinterpreted. I mean, you can’t blame him — for example, it is claimed that he was a principal opponent of the Iraq war — but was he? His criticism of the war was that it was a strategic blunder — you could have read that in Pravda [newspaper] in 1985 about the invasion of Afghanistan.

Q. What do you think the Obama administration is up against with the economic crisis? How bad do you think it will get?

A. Nobody really knows — a lot of the sophisticaled money managers think it may level off by the fall and start recovering. On the other hand, there are sensible economists that think it will go much deeper. And the Obama administration is being very delecate in the moves it is making. It is moving in ways that don’t interfere with the basic structure of the system that created the crisis. You can see with the bonuses that are enraging everyone. I mean there is a way to deal with the bonuses — the way that congress is dealing with it to tax them, it’s probably unconstitutional.

But there is a very simple way of doing it — the government basically owns AIG by now — it has controlling shares. It could simply divest the financial section that is responsible for the crisis and separate it from AIG, and keep the functional part going. And the other part can just fend for itself, and the executives can try to get their bonuses from a bankrupt section — that ends that problem. But that would interfere with the corporate structure, which Obama won’t do.

Q. Do you believe it turn will turn into another great depression?

A> I think that’s very unlikely it would go that far — for one thing, there are built-in safeguards from the New Deal period. However, it’s not certain. This morning in the financial press, China is calling for replacement of the dollar as the reserve currency.

Nobody really knows what is going to happen.