Noam Chomsky on American Foreign Policy and US Politics

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Cenk Uygur

The Young Turks, October 26, 2010

Transcription courtesy of Ken Levy

Cenk Uygur: Professor Chomsky, great pleasure having you here.

Noam Chomsky: Glad to be here.

CU: Great to have you. Now, professor Chomsky has written over one hundred books, a little prolific to say the least, including American Power and the New Mandarins, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. He’s apparently the eighth most cited human being in history, just behind Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato and Freud. Well, the Bible’s not a human being.

Alright. And his new book is Hopes and Prospects.

Alright. Now professor Chomsky, in the book you talk about American foreign policy and I think it’s fair to assume that you’re not a big fan of the idea of American exceptionalism, so let me begin broadly by asking you what do you think are the major problems with American foreign policy?

NC: Well, first of all it’s not that I’m not a fan of American exceptionalism. That’s like saying I’m not a fan of the moon being made out of green cheese. It doesn’t exist.

Powerful states have quite typically considered themselves to be exceptionally magnificent and the United States is no exception to that. The basis for it is not very substantial, to put it politely.

The problems with American foreign policy are rooted in its essential nature, which we know about. Or we can know about it if we want to. So you go back to say the Second World War. That’s the point at which the US became a global power. Before that it had conquered the national territory, pretty much exterminated the population, conquered half of Mexico, pretty much taken control over the Western Hemisphere, invaded the Philippines, killed a couple of hundred thousand people but the real global power up to that time was Britain and others. The United States was not a global power. But it became so after the Second World War. And planners met and carefully laid out plans – they’re perfectly public – for how they would run the post-war world.

The basic idea was that there should be what they called a Grand Area which would be completely under US control and within which the US would not tolerate any expression of sovereignty that interfered with US global designs. There would be no competitor permitted, of course, to the US. And that area was pretty expansive. It included the Western Hemisphere, East Asia, the former British empire which the US would take over – that includes crucially the Middle East energy reserves, which are the main ones in the world. And top planners pointed out that if we can control Middle East oil we can control the world. And then of course it included as much of Eurasia as possible, at least its commercial and industrial center, Western Europe. That was the Grand Area. And within that Grand Area the US would dominate and limit and exercise of sovereignty. Well of course to a large extent that policy was implemented in the following years. Of course it was too ambitious, the system of power eroded, there was de-colonization which weakened authority, other industrial powers reconstituted themselves from the war. By around 1970 the world was basically tri-polar economically: a US-based North America, a mostly German-based Europe and at that time a Japan-based Asia were major economic powers. And since then it’s fragmented even more. Nevertheless this essential policy remains and that’s why we have maybe eight-hundred military bases around the world – nobody else does, why we spend about as much on the military as the rest of the world combined and are technologically far more advanced with means of destruction on the planning table to go beyond anything anyone has dreamt of and why we’ve spent a couple of trillion dollars invading a couple of countries in the Middle East and Central Asia and still occupying them and on and on. Those are very serious problems.

CU: No question. So let’s try to figure out, or you tell us why you think we do these things. Of course, we get fed this idea that it’s for freedom and democracy. But what is the real goal? Is it power? Is it money? And who’s making the decisions and why?

NC: Well the decisions in the 1940’s which I discussed were made in the government and private planning circles related to the government and the implementation of the policies is in the state sector. But remember that the state sector is very closely linked to concentrated private capital, to the corporate sector, industry and in recent years financial and others – military, energy corporations. I mean they’re all a linked nexus and that’s essentially where the planning is carried out. And it’s not very surprising that the planning is carried out in their interests. I mean, that’s the way it’s always been.

So you go back to, say, Adam Smith when he talked about England. He pointed out, correctly, that the architects of policy are the people who basically own the country, in his day merchants and manufacturers. And they make policy to make sure that their own interests are very well served no matter how grievous the effect on others, including the people of England. I’m virtually quoting. And that’s a simple truism, holds for power systems generally, and it’s not a great surprise that we’re like other power systems.

CU: We’re talking to professor Noam Chomsky who’s latest book is of course Hopes and Prospects. Professor Chomsky, so let’s take Iraq as an example. Who stands to gain from our invasion of Iraq and is it as simple as saying a defense contractor will make money, Halliburton will make money, and hence we’re going to Iraq because of that? Are there other forces and what are those forces?

NC: There were very solid reasons for invading Iraq. Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world. It’s right at the heart of the Middle East region which is the main energy reserve of the world. Establishing a client regime and a major military base in Iraq and getting preferential access to its resources would be of great value to the people who are our counterparts to Adam Smith’s merchants and manufacturers: energy corporations, industrial corporations, banks and so on.

They didn’t achieve it. Iraq is an interesting case because it was a defeat. US goals were defeated in Iraq, a very important fact.

At the beginning of course there were all sorts of pretexts: they’re tied up with Al Qaeda, weapons of mass destruction. When that collapsed there was a new pretext: we’re bringing democracy. In fact the US fought democracy every step of the way. It tried to prevent elections. When it couldn’t prevent them it tried to manipulate them and it kept going, right through to the end.

At the very end, say by 2008, when it was pretty clear that the US was not going to achieve its goals, the Bush administration started talking pretty frankly about what they were. So, November 2007, January 2008, there were strong, significant declarations by the administration. They discussed what the outcome must be. They were then talking about a status of forces agreement, what it must include. And at that time they were demanding that what it must include is the US right to use military bases in Iraq indefinitely as a base for combat and other operations and privileged access to Iraqi energy resources for US corporations. At that point it was said very explicitly because they were getting desperate.

Well, they didn’t get either of those. The US has not been able to suppress Iraqi nationalism. The US could kill any number of insurgents, so that wasn’t a big problem. But what they couldn’t deal with was the mass popular non-violent resistance. And the US had to back down step by step. That’s why the books on Iraq by the most serious analysts, people like Jonathan Steele, David Gardner of the Financial Times, and others, have titles like Defeat. The US was defeated.

But it’s clear what the war aims are and they were sensible aims.

CU: They’re sensible if you look at it in terms of the companies involved. That was a realization I made far, far too late. I never could understand why we wanted the oil when we don’t get the oil.

NC: It doesn’t matter. Look, in the 1950’s the US was the major producer and exporter. But nevertheless the US, the Eisenhower administration was dedicated to controlling the Middle East, Middle East oil, for the reasons I mentioned. Top planners recognized that if we can control Middle East oil we can control the world. If you have your hand on the spigot you can control what other people do, whether we use it or not.

In fact the Eisenhower administration, for the benefit of Texas oil producers, insisted on exhausting our domestic reserves, using up our domestic reserves, instead of purchasing much cheaper Middle East Saudi oil. Well, those were short term calculations of profit but in general policy is not made for the benefit of the population, rarely, in the United States or anywhere else.

CU: So when we look at a case like Afghanistan, we have President Obama deciding to of course extend our stay there, as it were. How do you think that decision gets made? I mean, is President Obama actually making that decision or does he think he’s making the decision but the institutions are forcing him in a certain direction? Walk us through that if you can and how does it relate to what we’ve been discussing here? Because Afghanistan does not have a lot of oil. They have pipelines but they don’t have oil.

NC: The US didn’t invade Afghanistan because of its resources. We could go back to why Bush invaded. But when Obama came in the war was going on and he had to make a decision about what to do about it.

There is an elaborate literature on this. So, for example, Bob Woodward’s recent book goes into detail about what he was told by insiders about the decision. Maybe that’s worth looking at but we don’t have internal documents so we have to speculate. My own speculation is that Obama and his advisers are making a political decision. They know that the war is unpopular. A majority of the population by now thinks we shouldn’t be there. But they also know that if they get out of Afghanistan without something that they can call a victory they’ll be slaughtered by the right-wing propaganda system. And I suspect they’re trying to find a way to hang on long enough so they can have a situation which maybe they can sell as a victory and then partially withdraw. That’s not so simple, trying the same thing [as was done] in Iraq.

CU: We’re talking to professor Noam Chomsky. His latest book is Hopes and Prospects. Professor Chomsky, are there any bright spots in American Foreign policy?

NC: Well, take any country. There are things which are going to be of some benefit to people. Take the Marshall Plan. Personally I was in favor of it at the time but without illusions. The Marshall Plan was a good thing. It did to some extent help Europe recover but its major goal was for the benefit of US corporate power. And that was barely concealed.

I mean, remember the situation then. The industrial world had mostly been destroyed by the Second World War. The US, which was already the richest country in the world, almost quadrupled industrial production. I mean, we literally had half of the wealth of the world at the end of the Second World War. US manufacturers had an enormous surplus and they needed a market. Well, where’s the market gonna be? Only in the other industrial societies. So they had a real stake in using taxpayer funding to help the other industrial societies reconstruct and be not only a market for US industry but also an area for expansion. That’s how multinational corporations really got started. Incidentally, this is not particularly my idea. You can read it in Reagan’s commerce department which said the same thing. You could read it in the business press which understood it perfectly well. So, it was a good thing to do but we shouldn’t have any illusions.

CU: Right, but isn’t that the best we can hope for, enlightened self-interest, where yes, our corporations make money but it also does help rebuild significant parts of Europe and Asia? And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing; that’s actually a very good thing.

NC: I don’t think it’s the best we can hope for. I don’t think the best we could hope for from, say, the Soviet Union, was that it would subsidize the countries of Eastern Europe to the extent that they were actually richer than the Soviet Union. I mean, it’s sort of better that they did it and that they treated them better than the way we treat our colonies. But I don’t think that’s the best we can hope for and I don’t praise them for it.

CU: Okay, fair enough. Again a broad question but do you think that our system is so captured (and has been all along) that we don’t have a functional democracy?

NC: Democracy isn’t a “yes” or “no” affair. It isn’t even a “more” or “less” affair. It has many dimensions. I mean in some respects the United States is very free.

So, take for example freedom of speech. I mean, that’s protected more in the United States than in any other country I know of. And that’s a very good thing. It’s an achievement. It’s not in the Bill of Rights, incidentally. It’s an achievement that was gained mostly in the 1960’s; that’s when the great Supreme Court cases were reached under the impact of the civil rights movement and so on. But by now freedom of speech is highly protected, much more so than in other countries that I know of. So that’s good.

On the other hand we barely have a political system. I mean, fifty years ago analysts pointed out that the US has essentially one political party, the business party, with two factions called Republicans and Democrats. And they consistently follow policies that are in the interest of their business constituency and sometimes of some help to the population, sometimes not. You can see it all the time.

I mean take, say, President Obama. The core of his funding was financial institutions. By now they’re the largest part of the economy. They don’t contribute much to the economy but they have enormous weight. They’re probably forty percent of corporate profits – very questionable what they contribute to the economy but anyway they are very powerful. And that was the core of his funding. And in the tradition of US politics, which has been quite well-studied, well-documented – in that tradition it’s typically the case that the concentration of funding pretty well determines the policies. The funders expect to be paid off. So it comes as no great surprise that the beneficiaries were the very financial institutions who tanked the economy. And you could see that right away.

I mean, the people he picked as his economic advisers were not Nobel laureates who had condemned the policies that led to the crisis and so on. Not people like Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman and others. He picked the people who created the crisis: the Reubenites – Robert Reuben who was the supervisor, Lawrence Summers was famous for having undermined regulation of derivatives, one of the main causes of the crisis, Tim Geithner who was at the New York Stock Exchange. And they created an enormous bailout of financial institutions. I mean, something was obviously needed. The financial institutions had destroyed the economy so something had to be done. But it’s very doubtful that it had to be done in a way that enriches those who created the crisis and makes them more powerful than ever. But that’s what you’d expect from the way politics works.

CU: Now, do you think that’s a conscious decision by Obama where he says, You know what, I’m going to pick the guys who destroyed the economy anyway because I got paid by these guys? If it’s not a conscious decision, how does that decision come about?

NC: If you go back to the Politburo in the Soviet Union and you ask what the people were thinking, we have a good idea what they were thinking because there have been internal documents released. They were thinking that they’re saving democracy from the assault of the fascists led by the United States. They’re gonna bring wealth and benefits to people.

You read Japanese fascists – we have a ton of documents because they’re a conquered country. The documents of Japanese fascists are just overflowing with loving kindness. I mean, when they were carrying out huge massacres in China they were bringing an “earthly paradise” to China and protecting the people from the “bandits” who were trying to undermine it and so on and so forth.

Almost anything you look at you find self-serving ideologies created.

CU: So is Obama brainwashed by the system?

NC: I don’t know anything about Obama. You’d have to ask his psychiatrist and his family. And I also don’t think it matters. I mean, I don’t care what, say, Brezhnev actually thought. I care what he did.

CU: Alright, fair enough. And then finally, let’s if we can – another broad question about solutions. We’re in this mess and the takeover seems complete. You and I might disagree on some things but we agree on that. All of our politicians are bought. It’s a machine. It’s a system. You’ve explained it eloquently here. How do we fix it, if we can?

NC: Well we can. In fact if you look over American history there have been waves of progress and then regression.

So the current situation for example is somewhat similar to the 1920’s. Inequality, which is colossal, is about what it was in the 1920’s. The labor movement had pretty much been destroyed. Independent thought had been severely repressed by Woodrow Wilson’s red scare and other devices. And there were celebrations in the 1920’s about a utopia of the masters, the end of history.

Well, you know, in the 1930’s that radically changed. There were popular movements, they democratized the country, they created very significant, the government was compelled to create significant welfare measures, social security, labor rights and so on which greatly improved the country. I mean, they weren’t perfect but they were a significant improvement.

In fact, the regulation of financial institutions was so good that there weren’t any financial crises until these began to be dismantled in the ’70’s and ’80’s.

And you take a look at the 1960’s. Yeah, popular movements then also led to a significant democratization of the country. The protection of the freedom of speech, as I mentioned, was essentially on the wave of the civil rights and other popular movements: women’s rights, a very significant fact, the rights of ethnic minorities. You know these created a more free and just society.

And it can happen again. It’s not gonna happen by itself. It takes work, dedication, effort. But it can happen.

CU: So how did they do it then and what can we learn from that so we can do it now?

NC: Well it’s not a big secret. I don’t know how old you are but I lived through both of them. I was a child in the 1930’s. I was very active in the 1960’s. There’s no big secrets: education, organization, dedication, commitment, picking actions appropriate to situations. All of that works. You can look through the details. So, sit down strikes in the 1930’s, organization of women’s consciousness-raising groups in the ’60’s and ’70’s, anti-war activism. I mean, all of these things work. They have to be done of course. They don’t happen by themselves.

CU: Alright professor Noam Chomsky. His latest book is Hopes and Prospects. I want to thank you so much for joining us on The Young Turks and I hope we can do it again.

NC: Okay. Good to talk to you.