Kurds within the Arab spring and the Middle East Crisis

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Haidar Nasih

chomsky.info, December 30, 2012

NASIH: First, I want to ask how you read the situation going on in the Middle East, I mean the Arab spring, do you see the Arab spring as an optimistic beginning of democracy and breaking down the dictatorship statues in the region?

CHOMSKY: It is an ongoing process. There have been some gains, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt. In both countries there are far more openings for freedom of expression, labor organizing, and other achievements. But there is a long way to go, and serious barriers to overcome. The oil dictatorships – what the West cares most about – are holding the line. The rest varies a lot, mostly not in attractive ways.

NASIH: Do you think that the plights of people and nations are the main reason behind what is happening there, or there are also external factors available, like say the western interference? If so, then what are their interests in the success of the Arab spring?

CHOMSKY: The uprisings have internal roots. The West dislikes them, and is strongly opposed to the rise of democracy in the region. To see why it is only necessary to look at the polls of Arab public opinion undertaken by the leading US polling agencies. The last thing the US and its allies want to see is to see policies implemented that reflect the public will, as happens to the extent that democracy can function. That is why the West has supported the dictatorships as long as it was possible, and is relieved that the oil dictatorships appear to have beaten back the democratic thrust, at least for now.

NASIH: For what reason do you believe that Russia and China support Syrian regime, while it is carrying out disastrous massacres? Is it referring to the conflicts between those two different categories, say east and west, or liberals and others?

CHOMSKY: China does not seem to have been playing an active role. Russia supports the Geneva Agreement for a transitional regime, reached last summer, as does UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi, so it is reported. It is undoubtedly true that the Syrian regime has carried out major atrocities, but the best journalists there, who really know the country well – Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass, and others – have pointed out that the situation is much more complex than conveyed in western media, basing themselves largely on rebel propaganda. See, for example, Cockburn’s report today in the London Independent, Dec. 30.

It’s interesting that questions are raised about Russia’s role, though they rarely if ever have been about the US role when some friendly state is under internal attack, including ones with an even more brutal record than Assad’s government: Central America during the Reagan years, to cite only one example. The US did not react the way Russia does now. Rather, it provided huge military aid to the murderous government forces along with extensive military support and training (in the US as well) and blocked any support for the rebels with very severe and credible threats. And if it didn’t like the governments, it launched terrorist wars against them or supported military coups to overthrow them, with very little protest, if any, from its western allies. One can compare Russian behavior in its satellites under Communist rule to US treatment of much of the global South, but not its behavior in Syria, however one may object to it.

NASIH: What should be the role of Kurdish parties like (patriotic union party) in the situation, in Syria, how can they protect their rights and confirm it in the future constitution of the country?

CHOMSKY: It is not easy to imagine what might emerge from Syria’s suicidal plunge into catastrophe. Right now about all the Kurdish parties can do is try to develop some kind of autonomous enclave, perhaps on the model of Iraqi Kurdistan. If it is internally successful, it might be able to carve out a place in an eventual settlement, whatever it will be.

NASIH: Many scholars say that Arab spring is an indirect message for other dictator regimes in the region, to understand that they should make great reforms or they will have the same future as Egypt, Lybia and Tunisia, what is your opinion in this regard?

CHOMSKY: If that is the message, it hasn’t been heard in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, Bahrain. Rather, the message they have heard is that the West will strongly back their repression of democratic tendencies. The lesson of Egypt and Tunisia is that the West will follow the classic pattern when a favored dictator is facing difficulties: support him as long as possible, and if cannot be done any longer, typically if the army turns against him, then send him off somewhere and try to reconstitute the former socioeconomic regime as much as possible. There is a long list of such cases: Somoza, Duvalier, Marcos, Mobutu, Suharto,… It is no surprise that the same course was followed in Tunisia (by France) and Egypt (by the US). Libya is a special case. Qaddafi had plenty of support from the West until the rebellion broke out, but they preferred some more stable government to support their interests and so joined the rebellion under the pretext of protecting civilians. There are few lessons there for other dictators.

NASIH: In the Middle East countries, some intellectuals began to name the revolutions as “Islamic spring” this came after the success of Islamic parties in Egypt, and they expect the success of Islamic parties in other countries as well, is this because of the failure of so called Arabic secularism in the past half century? Can you elaborate on this?

CHOMSKY: The Islamic parties were the only ones that could function under the dictatorship; they at least had the Mosques, in fact considerably more opportunities. Some, like the Salafis, also have lavish outside funding from Saudi Arabia at least. They were also better embedded into the economic establishment, and more willing to adapt to the neoliberal programs imposed by the Western institutions. If they fail to satisfy the demands of the populations, as is likely, the uprisings may well take on a more militant and radical cast, going well beyond opposition to dictatorship.

NASIH: It is clear that the Middle East is going to struggle to establish democracy, and they seem to have the energy and tendency to do so, but as you mentioned in some last interview that “west is terrified of Arabic democracy”, the serious question here is that, why they are terrified while they always pretend themselves as the messenger of democracy in the world?

CHOMSKY: The reason why they are so terrified is what I already mentioned. Nor is there anything novel about that or specific to the Arab world. It is well-established even in the major mainstream scholarship, that the US supports democracy only insofar as that conforms to social and economic objectives. The other western powers are no different. One can hardly expect concentrations of power to favor popular rule, domestically either. Why do they pretend otherwise? Everyone does. Even Stalin proclaimed his love for democracy. We do not learn about the nature of systems of power by listening to their rhetoric.

NASIH: In that situation, Europe and USA may have different positions, while Middle East countries themselves really want to establish democracy, which position you think better to be taken by those pro democratic countries?

CHOMSKY: I do not know which “pro-democratic countries” you have in mind. For one thing, countries are not pro- or anti-democratic. Sectors within them are.

NASIH: What I mean by the pro democratic countries is the countries in which the Arab spring has been happening. There might be possibilities that they will follow a kind of social democratic system like some of EU countries, or a neo liberal system like what is existing in US or an Islamic system.

CHOMSKY: One cannot really speak of “countries” wanting to establish democracy. Their populations generally do, but elites and power centers typically do not, at least functioning democracy. Insofar as popular elements gain rights and power they should take the same positions as their counterparts among western populations: work to promote freedom, justice, rights, sustainable development, and other such values.

NASIH: US has been claiming that they carry democracy promotion program for the Middle East, do you think that they help to reshape the design of this countries, in a way that brings prosperity for the nations, at least to solve the basic problems.

CHOMSKY: Same comment as before. US planners seek to serve the interests that they represent, overwhelmingly concentrations of power, mostly economic, within their own societies. The evidence for that is overwhelming, and it would be quite surprising if it were otherwise, given the nature of the society. Same with other imperial powers. The basic principle was stated clearly by the Secretary of State in the Woodrow Wilson administration, during the peak of what is called “Wilsonian idealism.” Referring to US policy over a long period in Latin America (then the main domain of US power), he said that it is based on “selfishness alone.” The US “considers its own interests. The integrity of other American nations is an incident, not an end.” President Wilson agreed, advising however that it would be “impolitic” to let the public understand any of this. The rhetoric was, as always, far more uplifting. And once again, this is neither specific to the US nor at all surprising to those with eyes open.

NASIH: One of the most important questions of history is the notion of revolutions of nations, that’s what the Arab countries are carrying out, and Kurds have been struggling for a long time, but Kurds do not have a state, while Arabs have, and they both have the same plights and problems, so do you think that Kurds problems are more related to statelessness? Does establishing a Kurdish state solve the problems?

CHOMSKY: In this world, statelessness poses specific problems, as Kurds know well. Having a state should at best solve some of them, but many others will remain, as history and logic reveal.

NASIH: What kind of problems you think can not be solved via having an independent state for Kurds, especially Iraqi Kurds in this case?

CHOMSKY: As we all know, many crucial problems have not been solved by attaining statehood, and that will be true of Kurds as well. Some problems are specific to societies, cultures, their place within more general power systems, among other problems. For Iraqi Kurds, for example, if they were to gain true independence they would be faced with the fact that they are surrounded by powers that are either hostile or will barely tolerate them.

NASIH: If we shift to a very theoretical aspect of the situation, you see that middle east is really at the peak of ideological conflicts, historically speaking, it is at different point of time, as compared to the west, while there has been a claim that ideology has ended in the west, what is your opinion about these differences?

CHOMSKY: “The end of ideology” has been repeatedly proclaimed, for example in the late 1950s, right on the eve of the popular uprisings of the 1960s. “The end of history” has an equally distinguished record. I know of no reason to take any of this seriously today, just as there has been none before. The Middle East has its own problems, some of them extremely serious. To mention just one, the wealth of the region is largely concentrated in a wasting resource: hydrocarbons. That provides a limited period within which sustainable development can be established. If the opportunity is lost, the consequences could be disastrous. And that is only one problem.

NASIH: So do you believe that ideology has ended in the west, and it is at the top of progressing in the Middle East?

CHOMSKY: Nothing remotely like it.

NASIH: How? Can you elaborate on this a little?

CHOMSKY: The west is torn by serious internal conflicts, “ideological” if you like, concerning the course that governments and societies should pursue. And some doctrines are widely held among elites at the level of near religious fanaticism: for example, faith in the fundamental benevolence of western powers, hampered sometimes by naivete and error. These prominent characteristics of western culture have been documented to the sky.

NASIH: You have always taken the position that Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic currents develop in those countries where secularism failed, do you think what is going on in Egypt is a pretty good reference to that?

CHOMSKY: Secularism in Egypt did not exactly “fail.” It was crushed by a combination of external force, internal corruption, and subordination to external power (in different eras). But secular currents are quite vibrant, and might yet prevail.

NASIH: Finally, in those conflicts between different ideologies, and different external interferences, which kind of state and constitution can be the best one with a great regard to the social and historical position of the region?

CHOMSKY: We can ask the same questions about the West. The questions are too large, complex, and varied for me to try to address here.

NASIH: Thanks for your time. Thanks a lot.