All superpowers feel exceptional, inflate security myth for “frightened population”

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Anissa Naouai

RT, October 10, 2013

RT: I’d like to begin with Iran. The new president, Rouhani, has appeared to be much softer than his predecessor. On his recent trip to the US it was hailed as progress and the first time two presidents spoke in over 30 years. Do you see US policy towards Iran changing?

Noam Chomsky: The real issue is what will happen in the United States. The way the issue is presented in the United States, and most of the West, the problem is Iran’s intransigence and its rejection of the demands of the international community. There is plenty to criticize in Iran but the real issue is quite different. It’s the refusal of the West, primarily of the United States, to enter into serious diplomacy with Iran. And as far as Iran violating the will of the international community, that depends on a very special definition of international community which is standard in the West where the term means the United States and anybody who goes along with it. So if the international community includes the world then the story is quite different. For example the non-aligned countries, which is most of the world’s population, have vigorously supported Iran’s right to enrich uranium — still do.

The nearby region, in the Arab world, Arab’s don’t like Iran it’s quite unpopular there are hostilities that go back very far. But they do not regard Iran as a threat, a very small percentage regard Iran as a threat. The threats they perceive are the United States and Israel, so they are not part of the world as far as “international community” is concerned but it’s a western obsession. Are there ways to deal with it, whatever one takes a threat to be? Sure, there are ways.

So for example in 2010 there was a very positive advance that could have mitigated whatever the threat is supposed to be. Turkey and Brazil reached a deal with Iran in which Iran would ship out its low-enriched uranium in exchange for storage in Turkey, and in return the west would provide isotopes for Iran’s medical reactors. As soon as that was announced Brazil and Turkey were bitterly condemned by Washington and by the media, which more or less reflexively follow what Washington says. The Brazilian government was pretty upset by this, so much so that the Brazilian Foreign Minister released a letter from President Obama to the president of Brazil in which Obama had proposed this assuming that Iran would turn it down. When Iran accepted, of course he had to denounce it and Obama went right to the Security Council to try to get harsher sanctions. Well that’s one case.

There’s a more recent one that is even more interesting. Last December there was supposed to be an international conference in Finland to carry forward longstanding efforts to establish a zone free of nuclear weapons, all weapons of mass destruction in fact, in the Middle East. This is under the auspices of the proliferation treaty, basically the UN. Well it was to be in December, it didn’t happen. The first thing that happened is that Israel announced they wouldn’t participate. Then everyone who was interested was waiting to see if Iran would participate. Iran said they would participate with no conditions. Immediately Obama called off the conference, giving the reasons which are the official Israeli reasons: You can’t have a conference until there is a regional peace settlement. Of course in the background you can’t have a regional peace settlement until the US and Israel stop blocking the international consensus on an Israel/Palestine agreement — as they are doing and have been for 35 years. So no meeting. The Arab countries who have pressed for this for a long time said they’re going to go ahead with this anyway but of course you can’t without US support. The European parliament passed a resolution calling for a quick renewal of the initiative, Russia supported it. People in the United States have done almost nothing about it for a very simple reason: not a word about this has appeared in the American press, literally. You can read about it in arms control journals or international affairs journals or in things that I write or in things on the fringe. But the press is silent about it, so no pressure. Well, could that have succeeded? Maybe. There could have been steps toward mitigating the crisis. I won’t go through the record but this goes pretty far back. As long as the West, following the US lead refuses to accept a negotiated diplomatic solution the situation can be very serious.

It’s also worth remembering that every day the United States and Israel are violating international law on this issue. The UN charter, if anybody cares, bans the threat or use of force in international affairs. Every time an official says “All options are open,” that is a criminal act. Here nobody cares. We are supposed to be able to carry out criminal acts and in fact that was a dramatic illustration of that yesterday.

If you read yesterday’s New York Times big front page article on the capture of Abu Anas, the jihadi target in Libya, read down to the bottom of the article and there’s a quote from the Secretary of State who is asked in a press conference whether this was legal and he says “Yes this is legal it’s in accord with American law.” That means American law says we can go into any country we like and kidnap somebody we want and that’s legal. Of course is that anybody else’s law? Suppose Al-Qaeda or some other country, Yemen or whoever, comes to the United States and kidnaps John Kerry. Is that legal? If it’s legal by their laws. What this says is we claim that we own the world: What we decide applies universally. It doesn’t matter what international law is, no one else has these rights. An honest report would have had this as the headline and would have explained what it means but nobody is going to comment on that in the United States or England or probably most of the world but these are very important facts.

The United States has always adopted the principle of American exceptionalism, this goes back to the early colonists, but it’s not a uniquely American position.

Every great power, at least every one I know of, has taken the same position. So France was unique in its civilizing mission, which was announced proudly as the Minister of War was calling for the extermination of the people of Algeria. Russia under Stalin was uniquely exceptional and magnificent while it was carrying out all kinds of crimes. Hitler pronounced German exceptionalism when he took over Czechoslovakia, it was done to end ethnic cleansing and put people under the broader German high culture and German technology. In fact I can’t think of an exception.

Every great power that I know of has claimed to be exceptional, the United States among them: exceptional in its right to use force and violence.

RT: Doesn’t the US take it a step further with exceptionalism?

NC: Only because the US is more powerful. If you go back a hundred years British and French exceptionalism was far more powerful. The US had the same doctrine but what really mattered for the world was the major imperial powers. And in Russia’s domains it was Russia that was exceptional. Try to find an exception. So the exceptionalism is kind of interesting in that it seems to be without exception. Everybody accepts it, and of course it’s ludicrous in each case.

RT: I’d like to ask you about Syria. They’ve just begun to dismantle their chemical arsenal. The US now seemingly agrees with Russia that perhaps military intervention is not the best way, although it seems to be dragging its feet on Syria policy. Do you expect provocations from the armed rebels in terms of trying to hamper this step to disarm?

NC: There are many armed rebel groups and they’re kind of unpredictable. A lot of them are fighting each other and a lot of them are local. Some of them are even pushing for autonomy, like in the Kurdish area the armed rebels are really pressing for Kurdish autonomy and there’s also all sorts of others. There are also secular democratic elements, they’re personally the kind of people I’d like to see take over but the dynamics of armed conflict are that the harshest and most brutal elements on all sides tend to come to the fore. That’s almost inevitable so one may like them, as I do, but I don’t think their prospects are very good. I don’t think what they will do is predictable.

Actually it’s fine to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons, that’s great, but it’s not what the policy ought to be. When President Obama and the press and so on talk about the chemical weapons convention they crucially misstate it, purposefully. What’s stated is that the chemical weapons convention bans the use of chemical weapons, it’s only part of the story. The convention bans the production, storage, or use of chemical weapons. Now production and storage can’t be mentioned because if you mention them you’ve got to dismantle Israel’s chemical weapons therefore that can’t be mentioned. But this is a perfect opportunity to move to eliminate chemical weapons from the region, not just from Syria but remove them from the region.

Israel is the only country with a massive nuclear capacity in the region. So there’s a broader issue which goes back to the question of a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East, which the US has been blocking for the same reason. So this is a partial solution, it’s good in itself but very partial. The broader opportunities are not being pursued and not even being discussed outside of really marginal areas.

RT: Recent information released by whistleblower Edward Snowden stirred up a whole lot of scandal across the globe. Some see him as a villain, others as a hero. The US wants to try him while other people are calling for him to receive the highest human rights prizes. What do you think of him?

NC: I think he performed the responsibility of an honest citizen. Let the population know what your elected representatives are doing, the same for Bradley Chelsea Manning. Let people know what your government is doing. Those who want him hanged as a traitor, etc. what they say is he harmed security.

There are two problems with that defense. One is that when a government or others related to its claim security, it literally carries no information. The reason is it’s predictable. No matter what any state does, no matter how awful it’s going to say it’s necessary for security. A message that is completely predictable is completely uninformative. So first it’s uninformative. We can however look and see what the claim of security amounts to and here it’s pretty easy in a society like the United States, precisely because it is a very free and open society, maybe the most in the world.

So we have a huge record of declassified documents going way back that were classified for security reasons but are now available, a huge array of them, we can study them and ask to what extent was security relevant. I’ve done a lot of work on this and others can do it to and there’s a conclusion security is almost always relevant but its security of the government from its own population. That’s the security concern.

The genuine security, like the security of the population from attack, is a very low concern. You can see this in state policy as well, there’s no time to go through it, but if you run through the record of state policy from the very beginning up until the present the security of the population is not a very high priority. The United States is not alone in this, that’s pretty common.

RT: Why do we not see more Americans scrutinizing NSA spying, Obama’s drone campaign, clear violations and certainly things that you have people abroad criticizing the US for. Why is it so quiet back home?

NC: Because the security. It’s a frightened population and the security argument has weight. People feel, somehow, that the government is not protecting us. Take, say, drones. The drone campaign is by far the biggest terrorist campaign in the world. It’s never described that way but that’s of course what it is. Furthermore it’s a terrorist generating campaign. From the highest levels and most respected sources it’s recognized that the drone attacks create potential terrorists on quite a substantial scale. Therefore it’s a threat to US security, apart from being a terrorist campaign in itself, and almost never discussed. Take the invasion of Iraq.

The invasion of Iraq was undertaken with warnings from the intelligence services in the United States and Britain, both the attacking countries, intelligence services warned that this was going to increase terrorism. It did by a huge factor. According to government statistics by about a factor of seven in the first year. Does that help security? Well they had other reasons to invade Iraq, not security and this goes way back.

Let’s go back to 1950. The US was overwhelmingly powerful, it had about half the world’s wealth, incomparable security and so on. But there was a potentially serious danger: ICBMs with hydrogen bomb warheads. They didn’t exist but they were going to exist. Well, if the government had any interest in security it would have moved to see if Russia would have accepted a treaty to ban the production of these weapons and it’s very possible that they would have. Not because they’re nice people but because they knew they were way behind. So it might have worked.

There’s kind of a standard history of nuclear weapons policy by George Bundy who was national security advisor for Kennedy and Johnson. He had access to the highest level of internal documents. And in this book there are a couple of lines, which are most in important in the book, which observed he could not find any internal paper that even raised this possibility.

The concern over destruction of the country was so limited that they never even discussed the possibility of developing a treaty arrangement with their only adversary which could have eliminated this threat. It’s just not a concern. That’s the way states operate. Where we know anything about state policy — it’s very typical like this — they have their own power systems and they have their own lists of concerns but security of the population is not high on the list. But the population accepts it and they are afraid. And other countries too, they’re afraid. They think we need big brother to protect us from enemies so there’s very little protest and very little discussion. So check to see where you can find the drone campaign described as a terrorist campaign because it’s generating terrorists. You can find it on the fringes but most people, they’ve never heard anything like this.