Global Struggles for Dominance: Noam Chomsky on ISIS, NATO and Russia

Noam Chomsky interviewed by C.J. Polychroniou

Truthout, August 17, 2016

C.J. Polychroniou: The rise of ISIS (also known as Daesh or ISIL) is a direct consequence of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and represents today, by far, the most brutal and dangerous terrorist organization we have seen in recent memory. It also appears that its tentacles have reached beyond the “black holes” created by the United States in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan and have now taken hold inside Europe, a fact acknowledged recently by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In fact, it has been estimated that attacks organized or inspired by ISIS have taken place every 48 hours in cities outside the above-mentioned countries since early June 2016. Why have countries like Germany and France become the targets of ISIS?

Noam Chomsky: I think we have to be cautious in interpreting ISIS claims of responsibility for terrorist attacks. Take the worst of the recent ones, in Nice. It was discussed by Akbar Ahmed, one of the most careful and discerning analysts of radical Islam. He concludes from the available evidence that the perpetrator, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was probably “not a devout Muslim. He had a criminal record, drank alcohol, ate pork, did drugs, did not fast, pray or regularly attend a mosque and was not religious in any way. He was cruel to his wife, who left him. This is not what many Muslims would typically consider reflective of their faith, particularly those who consider themselves religiously devout.” ISIS did (belatedly) “take credit” for the attack, as they routinely do, whatever the facts, but Ahmed regards the claim as highly dubious in this case. On this and similar attacks, he concludes that “the reality is that while ISIS may influence these Muslims in a general way, their animus is coming from their position as unwanted immigrants in Europe, especially in France, where they are still not treated French, even if they are born there. The community as a whole has a disproportionate population of unemployed youth with poor education and housing and is constantly the butt of cultural humiliation. It is not an integrated community, barring some honorable exceptions. From it come the young men like Lahouaiej Bouhlel. The pattern of [the] petty criminal may be observed in the other recent terrorist attacks in Europe, including those in Paris and Brussels.”

Ahmed’s analysis corresponds closely to that of others who have done extensive investigation of recruits to ISIS, notably Scott Atran and his research team. And it should, I think, be taken seriously, along with his prescriptions, which also are close to those of other knowledgeable analysts: to “provide the Muslim community educational and employment opportunities, youth programs, and promote acceptance, diversity and understanding. There is much that governments can do to provide language, cultural and religious training for the community, which will help resolve, for example, the problem of foreign imams having difficulty transferring their roles of leadership into local society.”

Merely to take one illustration of the problem to be faced, Atran points out that “only 7 to 8 percent of France’s population is Muslim, whereas 60 to 70 percent of France’s prison population is Muslim.” It’s also worth taking note of a recent National Research Council report, which found that “with respect to political context, terrorism and its supporting audiences appear to be fostered by policies of extreme political repression and discouraged by policies of incorporating both dissident and moderate groups responsibly into civil society and the political process.”

It’s easy to say, “Let’s strike back with violence” — police repression, carpet-bomb them to oblivion (Ted Cruz), etc. — very much what al-Qaeda and ISIS have hoped for, and very likely to intensify the problems, as, indeed, has been happening until now.

C.J. Polychroniou: What is ISIS’s aim, when targeting innocent civilians, such as the attack on the seaside town of Nice in France in which 84 people were killed?

Noam Chomsky: As I mentioned, we should, I think, be cautious about the claims and charges of ISIS initiative, or even involvement. But when they are involved in such atrocities, the strategy is clear enough. Careful and expert analysts of ISIS and violent insurgencies (Scott Atran, William Polk and others) generally tend to take ISIS at its word. Sometimes they cite the “playbook” in which the core strategy used by ISIS is laid out, written a decade ago by the Mesopotamian wing of the al-Qaeda affiliate that morphed into ISIS. Here are the first two axioms (quoting an article by Atran):

[Axiom 1:] Hit soft targets: ‘Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.’
[Axiom 2:] Strike when potential victims have their guard down to maximise fear in general populations and drain their economies: ‘If a tourist resort that the Crusaders patronise… is hit, all of the tourist resorts in all of the states of the world will have to be secured by the work of additional forces, which are double the ordinary amount, and a huge increase in spending.’
And the strategy has been quite successful, both in spreading terrorism and imposing great costs on the “Crusaders” with slight expenditure.

It has been reported that tourists in France will be protected by armed forces and soldiers at holiday sites, including beaches. How much of this development is linked to the refugee crisis in Europe, where millions have been arriving in the last couple of years from war-torn regions around the world?

Hard to judge. The crimes in France have not been traced to recent refugees, as far as I have seen. Rather, it seems to be more like the Lahouaiej Bouhlel case. But there is great fear of refugees, far beyond any evidence relating them to crime. Much the same appears to be true in the US, where Trump-style rhetoric about Mexico sending criminals and rapists doubtless frightens people, even though the limited statistical evidence indicates that “first-generation immigrants are predisposed to lower crime rates than native-born Americans,” as reported by Michelle Ye Hee Lee in The Washington Post.

C.J. Polychroniou: To what extent would you say that Brexit was being driven by xenophobia and the massive inflow of immigrants into Europe?

Noam Chomsky: There has been plenty of reporting giving that impression, but I haven’t seen any hard data. And it’s worth recalling that the inflow of immigrants is from the EU, not those fleeing from conflict. It’s also worth recalling that Britain has had a non-trivial role in generating refugees. The invasion of Iraq, to give one example. Many others, if we consider greater historical depth. The burden of dealing with the consequences of US-UK crimes falls mainly on countries that had no responsibility for them, like Lebanon, where about 40 percent of the population are estimated to be refugees.

Are the US and the major western powers really involved in a war against ISIS? This would seem doubtful to an outside observer, given the growing influence of ISIS and the continuing ability of the organization to recruit soldiers for its cause from inside Europe.

Speculations to that effect are rampant in the Middle East, but I don’t think they have any credibility. The US is powerful, but not all-powerful. There is a tendency to attribute everything that happens in the world to the CIA or some diabolical Western plan. There is plenty to condemn, sharply. And the US is indeed powerful. But it’s nothing like what is often believed.

C.J. Polychroniou: There seems to be a geopolitical shift underway in Turkey’s regional political role, which may have been the ultimate cause behind the failed coup of July 2016. Do you detect such a shift under way?

Noam Chomsky: There certainly has been a shift in regional policy from former [Turkish Prime Minister] Davuto─člu’s “Zero Problems Policy,” but that’s because problems abound. The goal of becoming a regional power, sometimes described as neo-Ottoman, seems to be continuing, if not accelerating. Relations with the West are becoming more tense as Erdogan’s government continues its strong drift towards authoritarian rule, with quite extreme repressive measures. That naturally impels Turkey to seek alliances elsewhere, particularly [with] Russia. Erdogan’s first post-coup visit was to Moscow, in order to restore “the Moscow-Ankara friendship axis” (in his words) to what it was before Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015 when it allegedly passed across the Turkish border for a few seconds while on a bombing mission in Syria. Very unfortunately, there is very little Western opposition to Erdogan’s violent and vicious escalation of atrocities against the Kurdish population in the Southeast, which some observers now describe as approaching the horrors of the 1990s. As for the coup, its background remains obscure, for the time being. I don’t know of evidence that shifts in regional policy played a role.

C.J. Polychroniou: The coup against Erdogan ensured the consolidation of a highly authoritarian regime in Turkey: Erdogan arrested thousands of people and closed down media outlets, schools and universities following the coup. The effects of the coup may, in fact, even strengthen the role of the military in political affairs as it will come under the direct control of the president himself, a move that Erdogan has already initiated. How will this affect Turkey’s relations with the US and European powers, given the alleged concerns of the latter about human rights and democracy inside Turkey and about Erdogan’s pursuit of closer ties with Putin?

Noam Chomsky: The correct word is “alleged.” During the 1990s, the Turkish government was carrying out horrifying atrocities, targeting its Kurdish population — tens of thousands killed, thousands of villages and towns destroyed, hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) driven from their homes, every imaginable form of torture. Eighty percent of the arms were coming from Washington, increasing as atrocities increased. In the single year, 1997, when atrocities were peaking, Clinton sent more arms than the sum total [sent to Turkey] throughout the entire post-war era until the onset of the counterinsurgency campaign. The media virtually ignored all of this. The [New York] Times has a bureau in Ankara, but it reported almost nothing. The facts were, of course, widely known in Turkey — and elsewhere, to those who took the trouble to look. Now that atrocities are peaking again, as I mentioned, the West prefers to look elsewhere.

Nevertheless, relations between Erdogan’s regime and the West are becoming more tense and there is great anger against the West among Erdogan supporters because of Western attitudes toward the coup (mildly critical, but not enough for the regime) and toward the increased authoritarianism and sharp repression (mild criticism, but too much for the regime). In fact, it is widely believed that the US initiated the coup.

The US is also condemned for asking for evidence before extraditing Gulen, who Erdogan blames for the coup. Not a little irony here. One may recall that the US bombed Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to turn Osama bin Laden over without evidence. Or take the case of [Emmanuel “Toto”] Constant, the leader of the terrorist force FRAPH [Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti] that ran wild in Haiti under the military dictatorship of the early ’90s. When the junta was overthrown by a Marine invasion, he escaped to New York, where he was living comfortably. Haiti wanted him extradited and had more than enough evidence. But Clinton refused, very likely because he would have exposed Clinton’s ties to the murderous military junta.

C.J. Polychroniou: The recent migration deal between Turkey and the EU seems to be falling apart, with Erdogan having gone so far as to say publicly that “European leaders are not being honest.” What could be the consequences for Turkey-EU relations, and for the refugees themselves, if the deal were to fall apart?

Noam Chomsky: Basically, Europe bribed Turkey to keep the miserable refugees — many fleeing from crimes for which the West bears no slight responsibility — from reaching Europe. It is similar to Obama’s efforts to enlist Mexican support in keeping Central American refugees — often very definitely victims of US policies, including those of the Obama administration — from reaching the US border. Morally grotesque, but better than letting them drown in the Mediterranean. The deterioration of relations will probably make their travail even worse.

C.J. Polychroniou: NATO, still a US-dominated military alliance, has increased its presence in Eastern Europe lately, as it is bent on stopping Russia’s revival by creating divisions between Europe and Russia. Is the US looking for a military conflict with Russia, or are such moves driven by the need to keep the military-industrial complex intact in a post-Cold War world?

Noam Chomsky: NATO is surely a US-dominated military alliance. As the USSR collapsed, Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a continent-wide security system, which the US rejected, insisting on preserving NATO — and expanding it. Gorbachev agreed to allow a unified Germany to join NATO, a remarkable concession in the light of history. There was, however, a quid pro quo: that NATO not expand “one inch to the East,” meaning to East Germany. That was promised by President Bush I and Secretary of State James Baker, but not on paper; it was a verbal commitment, and the US later claimed that [that] means it was not binding.

Careful archival research by Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, published last spring in the prestigious Harvard-MIT journal International Security, reveals very plausibly that this was intentional deceit, a very significant discovery that substantially resolves, I think, scholarly dispute about the matter. NATO did expand to East Germany; in later years to the Russian border. Those plans were sharply condemned by George Kennan and other highly respected commentators because they were very likely to lead to a new Cold War, as Russia naturally felt threatened. The threat became more severe when NATO invited Ukraine to join in 2008 and 2013. As Western analysts recognize, that extends the threat to the core of Russian strategic concerns, a matter discussed, for example, by John Mearsheimer in the lead article in the major establishment journal, Foreign Affairs.

However, I do not think the goal is to stop Russia’s revival or to keep the military-industrial complex intact. And the US certainly doesn’t want a military conflict, which would destroy both sides (and the world). Rather, I think it’s the normal effort of a great power to extend its global dominance. But it does increase the threat of war, if only by accident, as Kennan and others presciently warned.

C.J. Polychroniou: In your view, does a nuclear war between the US and Russia remain a very real possibility in today’s world?

Noam Chomsky: A very real possibility, and in fact, an increasing one. That’s not just my judgment. It’s also the judgment of the experts who set the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists; of former Defense Secretary William Perry, one of the most experienced and respected experts on these matters; and of numerous others who are by no means scaremongers. The record of near accidents, which could have been terminal, is shocking, not to speak of very dangerous adventurism. It is almost miraculous that we have survived the nuclear weapons era, and playing with fire is irresponsible in the extreme. In fact, these weapons should be removed from the Earth, as even many of the most conservative analysts recognize — Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and others.