Manufacturing Stability

Interview with Khatchig Mouradian

ZNet, November 4, 2013


Khatchig Mouradian—The New York Times today ran a front-page story titled, “Obama May Ban Spying on Heads of Allied States.”[1] Talk about the impact WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden have had on U.S. policy.

Noam Chomsky—The WikiLeaks exposures didn’t reveal anything at all, certainly nothing much, about genuine security concerns, except in one respect: the security of the government from its own population. If you look over the historical record, very commonly the government regards its own population as an enemy that has to be controlled and manipulated. And if you look at declassified documents—the U.S. is a very free society, so we have quite a rich record—very little in these declassified documents has to do with real security—protection of the population from attack, let’s say. Most of it has to do with protecting the government from exposure to its own population about what it’s doing. I think what they’ve released fits that pattern. It’s embarrassing for the government, but there’s no genuine security interest involved.

What’s happened with the tapping is the same sort of thing. Releasing the fact that the United States is tapping the telephones of tens of millions of people in Europe, including the political leadership, doesn’t damage U.S. security, but it does damage the protection of the state from inspection by its own population and others.

K.M.—And for states spying on their own population, spying on allies is obviously not that much of a stretch.

N.C.—No. In fact, spying on allies goes back a long way. So, for example, when the United Nations was being established—it was established at a conference in San Francisco in 1945—there were of course delegations from countries all over. And it turned out that the FBI was bugging the hotel rooms of the foreign delegations, so that the U.S government would know how better to manipulate the proceedings. Well, of course technology has improved a lot since then, so we do it in more extensive ways.

K.M.—The released documents might not reveal much, but they make the job of those who dismiss arguments about the erosion of privacy as conspiracy theories more difficult, don’t they?

N.C.—That’s true of declassified documents altogether. If anybody bothers to read them, they show that what are called “conspiracy theories” are just descriptions of what happens. There are things that should be called conspiracy theories, that have basically no evidence: ideas about the powerful leaders meeting in Bilderberg and planning world systems, there’s not much to that; a lot of the claims about 9/11, no basis for that. But the term “conspiracy theory” is often used in the ideological system just to refer to normal institutional analysis. Take a look at the institutions, ask how they normally behave on the basis of their institutional structure, look at the historical record, and try to put all this together, and you get an account of state behavior. It’s not a conspiracy theory any more than it’s a conspiracy theory to say that General Motors tries to maximize profit. Of course they do!

K.M.— During our interview in 2006, you said: “The international order is in a way rather like the mafia. The godfather has to ensure that there is discipline.”[2] Can you elaborate based on what’s going on in the Middle East today?

N.M.—Well, take the Arab Spring. It was threatening to the United States and its allies, the traditional imperial powers, France, England. And they reacted with a completely standard procedure, case after case. When you have a favorite dictator—[President of Tunisia Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali, for France; [President of Egypt Hosni] Mubarak, for the U.S.; and so on—[you] support him as long as possible. If it becomes impossible to support him—perhaps the army turns against him, or the business classes turn against him—then [you] send him off somewhere—to Saudi Arabia, Sharm el Sheikh, wherever it is—and issue declarations about your love of democracy, and then try to restore the old system. Standard! Over and over! Support [President of the Philippines Ferdinand] Marcos, [President of Haiti Jean-Claude] Duvalier, [President of Indonesia] Suharto, [President of the Republic of the Congo] Mobutu. Case after case. Why should we expect anything else? And that’s exactly what happened [in the Middle East].

So in Tunisia, France, which is the major imperial power, supported Ben Ali even past the point when it was impossible to maintain him. There were scandals about the French [Foreign] Minister [Michèle Alliot-Marie] going to Tunisia for vacation after huge mobs were demanding Ben Ali’s expulsions.

And in the case of Egypt, the United States supported Mubarak until the point when the military basically said, We can’t keep you any longer. And then [he was sent] off to Sharm el Sheikh. Then [the U.S.] tried to support any organization that pretty much maintained the old order. They gave mild support to the Muslim Brotherhood; now they’re pretty much supporting the military, as long as they keep to the guidelines of U.S. policy.

It creates all kinds of conspiracy theories—real ones—in the Middle East. The very widespread beliefs that the U.S. is controlling everything—that it’s overthrowing the government, it’s overthrowing the Muslim government, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, whatever you like—vastly overestimate U.S. capacity and misunderstand a simple fact: The U.S., like other imperial powers, will support whoever can impose what’s called “stability.” Stability here doesn’t mean a functioning government. It means a government that functions in accord with our directives. Otherwise you have to destabilize it, because it’s the wrong kind of stability. Say [President of Chile] Salvador Allende or [President of Cuba Fidel] Castro, you have to overthrow it. Maybe stable, but it’s not our kind of stability. And that’s the way the Arab Spring has been developing.

The states that are most significant for the West are the oil dictatorships, obviously. There, they have harshly repressed any manifestation of the Arab Spring. In Saudi Arabia, which is the most reactionary and religious extremist of any of the states in the region and the favored ally of the U.S. and Britain, even a minor effort to take part in some kind of reform is harshly crushed. Right now, a few Saudi women are trying to drive. They get death threats and attacks and the clerics are condemning this as a move that will destroy the society. That’s to drive! In Tehran, you can take a taxi driven by women. But Iran is condemned, Saudi Arabia is praised, because they do pretty much what we want.

The same is true in eastern Saudi Arabia, the Shiite areas, where most of the oil is. There’s been pretty harsh repression and it is barely reported. Bahrain: the same. Kuwait: pretty much the same. The Emirates: pretty much the same. They are stable. They’re unchanged. Tunisia: some changes, it’s sort of in limbo. Egypt: sharp regression with the military coup and takeover. I think it’s a dark period coming in Egypt’s history. A lot of my friends in Egypt don’t agree with this, but that’s the way it looks to me.

Libya was an interesting case. The African Union, which is the regional authority that should deal with it, had proposals for the Libyan uprising. They were calling for diplomacy, negotiations, a transitional regime. They were hoping to avoid the humanitarian catastrophe that did follow from Western intervention, and also the breakup of Libya into what is now chaos. They wanted to avoid that. They had proposals which maybe would have worked, maybe not, but were clearly sensible. They were never considered. Britain and France primarily (the U.S. went along) just wanted to bomb: We’ll bomb, we’ll be the air force of the rebels, and we’ll get control over Libyan resources. They also wanted to drive out the Chinese. China had maybe 30,000 technicians there. They all had to flee. The idea was, this will go back under Western control. It hasn’t really worked out well. In fact, Libyan oil production has been reduced very sharply and the country is just in chaos. There was a cover of a UN resolution…

K.M.—You say in an interview that it lasted 5 minutes…

N.C.—Yeah, maybe 5 minutes. And then the imperial powers decided just to become the air force of the rebels. That’s not what the UN declaration said. And Syria just continues its plunge into a horror story.

The crucial fact is that the United States and its allies cannot tolerate democracy in the region. The official line is: We’re promoting democracy. But it can’t be true. It’s never been true in the past, for a very simple reason: Take a look at the polls. There are extensive Western-run polls of public opinion in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] countries. For example, on the eve of Tahrir Square, a major poll was conducted by major polling agencies. Take a look at the results among Egyptians. About 10 percent regarded Iran as a threat. They don’t like Iran, there are ancient hostilities, but they don’t consider it a threat. Like most of the world. That’s a Western obsession. The world doesn’t like Iran, but it doesn’t see it as a threat. They do see threats: the United States and Israel. Maybe 80 percent think the U.S. and Israel are serious threats. In fact, opposition to U.S. policy was so strong that in that poll, the majority favored Iran getting nuclear weapons to balance U.S. power. And there are other polls with somewhat similar results, varying a bit. If you have anything like a functioning democracy, public opinion is going to influence policy. So, of course the U.S. is going to oppose democracy. They—the media, scholarship, intellectual commentary—can’t say this. [They say] the U.S. is dedicated to democracy, sometimes it fails, so on. Are we too dedicated to democracy? [They have] debates like that.

The fact is, however, that the U.S., like other power systems, is not dedicated to democracy at home either. The U.S. government doesn’t want democracy at home. Take a look at the U.S. political system. … The majority of the population—maybe three-quarters—have no influence on policy whatsoever. Policy is determined primarily by the very rich. That’s not democracy; that’s plutocracy. And of course that’s the way the masters want it. And that has always been true.

K.M.—During our interview in 2006, you said, “One of the most interesting things about U.S. politics in the past years is that while support for the Bush Administration, which was always very thin, has declined very sharply because of one catastrophe after the other, support for the Democrats hasn’t increased.” Talk about where we are now.

N.C.—By now both of them are way down in the depths. Take a look at the current polls. Support for the Republicans is 28 percent. That’s the lowest it has been in history. On the other hand, when you ask, Would you prefer to have the Republicans or the Democrats in power, the answer is: the Republicans. And if you ask a further question, Who do you prefer on taxes, the answer is the Republicans. Then when the question is the policy that the Republicans pursue, there’s overwhelming objection [to it].

In fact, what the polls reveal is a population so utterly confused that they have no idea what’s going on—and they hate both parties, they hate banks, they hate institutions, but they feel that they’re facing some great power that they can’t do anything about. It’s a real dissolution of even the basis for democracy. These are very strange circumstances. In fact, what happened in Washington the last couple of weeks amazed the entire world. No parliamentary democracy behaves like this—nor has the U.S. in the past. But it’s gotten to the point where one Chinese commentator said [on state news agency Xinhua]: “As U.S. politicians of both political parties [fail to find a] viable deal to bring normality to the body politic they brag about, it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.”

K.M.—But Americans are angry with Washington for so many different—at times conflicting—reasons that anger often seems to be the only common denominator, leaving the impression that there is no possibility for real change…

N.C.—There is possibility. But it will require education and organization. That’s happened in the past. Could happen again. But it’s a long, hard process, and the prospects are not bright.
[1] See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/29/world/europe/obama-may-ban-spying-on-heads-of-allied-states.html

[2] See http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20060508.htm