Noam Chomsky needs no introduction. One of the most famous public intellectuals in the world, his bibliography is enormous and his contributions to the fight for a better world endless. In a recent conversation, Chomsky talks about the state of the Republican Party, the ongoing debacle of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the absurdities of American exceptionalism, and the hope he has in organizing to win desperately needed measures like a Green New Deal.
Chomsky spoke with David Barsamian for Alternative Radio. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
DB: In the United States, COVID-19 has resulted in more than seven hundred thousand dead. Globally, the death toll is in the millions. Vaccines have been effective, yet there’s a significant resistance to getting vaccinated, particularly in the United States. Why? What makes some people susceptible to conspiracy theories about getting vaccinated?
NC: We should look at exactly what’s happening. If you look at global maps, like the kind that the New York Times posts every day, the United States stands out. It’s the main global hot spot outside of Mongolia and a couple of others. If you look closely, it’s not the United States. It’s selected parts of the United States. Overwhelmingly, it’s the old Confederacy and a couple of outliers like Idaho and Wyoming, which are rock-ribbed Republican states. There’s even been analysis by counties by now, and it turns out that there’s a quite sharp difference between counties that voted for Joe Biden and counties that voted for Donald Trump. So, to a very substantial extent, it’s a partisan issue.
Parts of the Left have bought into this, too. They’re not statistically significant as compared with the mass refusal on the part of Republicans. And, in fact, the last poll I saw showed that over 50 percent of Republicans said they were not going to get vaccinated. So it’s not just that the country is refusing — very substantially, it’s a Republican issue.
It’s very serious. The hospitals in Republican areas like Idaho and Alabama are being crushed by COVID cases. Some states have had to stop providing regular services in hospitals because they have no beds. (Actually, in a minor way, that happened to me, too: I couldn’t get to a hospital that I needed to because they had no beds. It wasn’t terrible. I survived.)
Apart from the social cost, which is huge, they’re endangering people. The unvaccinated are endangering others. They’re severely endangering children who can’t get vaccinated yet. They have no protection. They’re even endangering the vaccinated. I mean, the vaccine is very effective, but not 100 percent. So they’re endangering the vaccinated, too. And on top of that, they’re creating a pool in which the virus can mutate freely, maybe leading to variants that might not even be treatable. It could be a raging, untreatable pandemic.
Why is this done? Liberty? There’s no such liberty. There’s no liberty that allows you to drive through a red light because you feel like it and you don’t want to be inhibited. Nobody’s ever claimed such a liberty. It’s outlandish. You want to hurt people? Okay. Go find a plot of land somewhere, sit on it, don’t take any benefits from the government, and don’t take any responsibilities. The whole libertarian thing is pure nonsense.
Furthermore, we’ve had vaccine mandates — strict ones. Much stricter than now, for years. You can’t send your kid to school without a vaccine, and rightly. Why should you be able to endanger other children? That’s been in place for a long time. There are no real mandates now. What’s called “mandates” have an alternative: you can agree to get tested every week or two. This is, I think, a symptom of severe social disorder — social collapse of a party that has simply gone rogue.
That’s not just my opinion. Recently, the Financial Times — the major business newspaper in the world, sober, conservative — their leading correspondent, Martin Wolf, a highly respected conservative analyst, wrote a column in which he said it’s just indescribable. He said the Republican Party has become a group of crazed radicals dedicated to reactionary policies.
The Republicans have been holding the country hostage by refusing to agree to the perfectly normal procedure of raising the debt ceiling to account for things that have already been done. When Trump was in office, he made a huge increase in the deficit with his lavish gifts to the rich; the Democrats went along with it, raised the debt ceiling every time it was necessary. Republicans won’t do it. In fact, they finally just now agreed, as long as conditions were imposed to block any form of mandate for small and medium-size businesses.
In other words, you want to harm the employees in a restaurant? Feel free to do it. It’s your right to harm them. That’s the Republican Party. They also tried to cut off funding for Afghan refugees. I mean, the political leadership is just a gang of sadists. And the shamelessness is indescribable. Take the hearing for Milley.
DB: General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
NC: He went through denunciations by a series of Republicans, Josh Hawley and a bunch of other frauds, condemning him for the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Take a look at the record. Until about a month ago, the Republican Party national website hailed the great genius Trump for arranging a much worse withdrawal. In February 2020, Trump simply gave away the store. He, of course, didn’t inform the Afghan government, obviously not the Afghan people. Why should he care about them? He made an arrangement with the Taliban for US forces to withdraw in May 2021. Worst possible time — beginning of the fighting season. Essentially no conditions. Do whatever you like. The only condition is, don’t fire at American troops, it won’t look good for me.
Biden came along and somewhat improved the awful Trump arrangements; he put it off a couple of months, a little bit of minimal time to accommodate, and added a few conditions that Trump hadn’t put in place. The Republican Party was lauding Trump for his historic achievement until the moment when it began to collapse. Then they turned on a dime, all of them berating Milley and others for carrying out an improved version of the policy that they had been lauding as a historic achievement when the hero that they worship was proposing it. The word “shameless” doesn’t cover this. There are no words.
It’s not just this. That’s why large parts of the Republican Party are denying global warming. If you tune in to Fox News and Breitbart, you’re listening to the leadership of the Republican Party. That’s all you hear. Maybe the virus is a bioweapon created by the Chinese to attack Americans. That’s about 35 percent of Republicans. Maybe Bill Gates is trying to put a chip in your head so he can control you. Maybe the government is run by an elite group of sadistic pedophiles who are trying to torture children. That’s about 25 percent of Republicans. If you’re stuck in that bubble, and that’s what you’re hearing from a political leadership that has lost even minimal commitment to the functioning of democracy, these are the results you get.
And it’s very straightforward; there’s nothing hidden. Mitch McConnell came right out and said, again, as he did when Barack Obama was elected: our responsibility is to make the country ungovernable, to make sure that nothing can be done that would benefit the American people.
Sensible strategy. If the population is harmed sufficiently, they can then come along and blame it on the Democrats, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity will echo it, and then maybe they can come back to power.
If you’ve lost any commitment to the country and to its people and to some form of democracy, and you’re solely committed to your own power and to the economic powers that you serve slavishly — concentrated wealth, ultra wealth, corporate power — if that’s who you are, then this is a sensible way to behave. Of course, it will ruin the country, but who cares?
DB: I can hear your critics saying, “It sounds like Chomsky is becoming an advocate for the Democratic Party.
NC: Not in the least. Their policies are terrible. And most of what I write is criticism of the Democratic Party. Take a look at the Democrats, what I have actually been writing and speaking.
Let’s start with August 9. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out with its latest report, very dire. It said, far more clearly than before, that we’re at a critical moment. We have to start reducing fossil fuels steadily right now, continuing until we’re free of them by essentially mid-century. That was August 9. What happened on August 10? Joe Biden issued an appeal to OPEC, the oil cartel, to increase oil production so as to reduce gas prices in the United States, which will help his electoral prospects. Is that the party we’re supposed to be lauding?
There’s plenty to condemn about the Democrats. They’re a political party that does plenty of wrong things. They’re not a rogue insurgency that is committed to serving a narrow constituency of extreme wealth and doesn’t give a damn how much they harm the country and the world. That’s not a political party anymore. It’s off the spectrum. You can rank [the Republicans] among the ultraright parties in Europe with neo-fascist origins.
DB: The IPCC report, which was three thousand pages and the work of over two hundred scientists, warned of the extreme dangers the planet is facing. Nevertheless — take our great neighbor to the north, Canada — just recently, Enbridge, a major Canadian corporation, announced its extension of a pipeline from the tar sands in Alberta to Wisconsin (tar sands being the dirtiest oil on the planet). This is happening despite years of opposition from environmentalists and indigenous groups.
NC: Take a look at the business press, especially the petroleum journals. The major oil companies are absolutely euphoric. They’re beside themselves. They’re finding new areas to explore. The current budget for the US government continues to provide subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Republicans wouldn’t tolerate anything else. Canada’s bad enough, and other countries aren’t doing that wonderfully. But the United States is indescribable.
A former political organization now calling itself the Republican Party is dedicated to accelerating the race to catastrophe. Take a look at the Republican states. Republican legislators aren’t even trying to hide it. They’ve got to race to catastrophe to enrich the energy corporations as much as possible before we reach apocalypse. That’s one part of the fading American democracy. Take a look at the one party that’s still functioning, the Democratic Party. There’s a major split within it that offers the opportunity, at least, to push forward on the programs that are well-known, feasible — to not only mitigate the crisis but lead to a much better world. They are on the table.
There’s a Green New Deal resolution by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ed Markey, senior senator from Massachusetts. It gives a detailed outline of quite feasible proposals, well within cost range, that could solve the crisis and lead the way to a much better society. It’s a resolution. That’s a step forward.
It got that far because of extensive popular activism — mostly among young people, the Sunrise Movement and others. The resolution’s details are approximately the same as what was produced by the International Energy Agency, originally a producer-based group, which recognized that we have to do something about this. It’s very similar to the quite detailed extensive proposals of my coauthor, Robert Pollin, a leading economist who’s worked hard on this, as has Jeffrey Sachs, another important economist whose somewhat different model comes out with pretty much the same conclusions. It’s all within range and can be done. It’s on paper. The Republicans are going to kill it. That’s a given. They don’t care what happens to the planet; they don’t give a damn. They have other commitments: their own power and the superrich.
In fact, if you look at their commitment, it is unbelievable. Take a look at the negotiations that have been going on in Congress. The Republicans established an absolute red line: no increase in taxes for the superrich and the corporate sector. You cannot touch Trump’s one legislative achievement, a tax scam that stabbed the country in the back, including the working classes and the middle classes, in order to enrich the very rich. That’s a red line. Furthermore, another part of the red line is that you can’t fund the IRS to enable it to catch tax cheaters — rich people and corporations with huge numbers of corporate lawyers who figure out how to rob the population of trillions of dollars. You can’t fund the IRS to investigate them. That’s the former Republican Party. We’re looking at a group of radical sadists.
Turn to the Democrats. They’re split. The Clintonite-Obama type, neoliberal, Wall Street–oriented Democrats who pretty much run the party apparatus — they’re reluctant. They’re not going to push. And some of the right-wing Democrats, mislabeled moderate, like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, look like total cynics flush with corporate money — they are holding back on even minimal things. Sinema, for example, won’t even say what she would agree to in the reconciliation bill. She just won’t agree. “What would you agree to?” “Sorry, can’t say.”
The Democratic Party is split between these groups, on the one hand, and progressive, mostly young people, who are pressuring them to try to save us from destruction on the climate, on the pandemic, on the breakdown of society. The reconciliation bill moves to give the population some respite from the neoliberal assault of the last forty years, to give some chance to respond to the major attack on the general population. There’s nothing radical in it.
In fact, one of the editors of the Financial Times, in a semi-joke, said that if Bernie Sanders was in Germany, he could be running on the conservative party ticket, the Christian Democrats. It’s true. His major proposals — universal health care, free higher education — in Germany, that’s the right-wing party. The United States has gone so far to the right that even policies that are normal in most of the rest of the world are considered radical.
DB: Someone who’s not mincing words is the UN secretary-general, António Guterres. He said, “We continue to destroy the things on which we depend for life on Earth. Ice caps and glaciers continue to melt, sea-level rise is accelerating, the ocean is dying, and biodiversity is collapsing. . . . We really are out of time. We must act now to prevent further irreversible damage.”
We keep hearing these calls, which invariably include the words “tipping points.” How many tipping points is it going to take before we tip over and into the abyss?
NC: We can’t predict precisely, but we are moving toward irreversible tipping points. Every month we wait, the problem gets harder to deal with. If we had dealt with it ten years ago, it would be much less dire today. If we had dealt with it thirty years ago, when it was perfectly clear where we were heading, then [it would have been] far easier.
You recall that the first Bush administration refused even to join the Kyoto Protocol. We have to keep to the high priorities: enrich the very rich and maintain massive profits for the corporate sector. What happens to the country and the world is secondary.
We don’t know exactly when the tipping points will come. But they’ll come. In fact, some of them may have come already. If not, we’ll reach them pretty soon. We’ll get to an irreversible tipping point, a series of them. It doesn’t mean that everybody dies tomorrow. The country will survive, other countries will survive. But we’re on a course toward total apocalypse. Meanwhile, we are incidentally destroying other species at an incredible rate that hasn’t been seen for sixty-five million years. All of this is known.
There are, more importantly, clear measures to deal with it — and, in fact, some positive steps. Take West Virginia, where their own senator, Joe Manchin, is working very hard to harm the people as much as he can in service to his corporate masters. But the population of West Virginia is beginning to see the light.
It’s a coal state. The United Mine Workers of America recently agreed to a transition program, in which there would be a transition from a coal-based economy for West Virginia — which has to disappear, otherwise we won’t be around — to a renewable energy economy. They have the capacity to do it. The transition proposal took into account the needs of the working people who will be affected by loss of jobs. New kinds of jobs, training, and better jobs are all part of the transition plan.
Bob Pollin has been quite active in working with labor unions in West Virginia, Ohio, and California. Many of them are moving in this direction — so it is possible. We might remember that, if we go back fifty years, the leaders of the environmental movement were the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union — Tony Mazzocchi‘s union. They were the ones pressuring people to deal seriously with the environment. And in fact, they were the ones who suffered immediately from the effects of pollution.
That can happen again. There are possible forces that can work on it. And activists can do something — they must, in fact. It’s the only hope.
The Republican Party is almost a lost cause. I say “almost” because, if you look closely, younger Republicans are not as insane and despicable as the party’s leadership. They are more open to concern about these issues. That’s a place for hope, too. They’re not Susan Collins and Josh Hawley, so you can have some hope there — and that should be pressed. Among the general population, including Republicans, they’re reachable. They’re stuck in a Fox News and Republican leadership bubble, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be moved. It’ll take effort and work, but they’re human beings. They care about their children. They care about the environment. And they can be reached.
In fact, among them are many committed environmentalists. It’s very interesting to read the detailed studies, like Arlie Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land, which came out a couple years ago, about the Louisiana Bayou. She was working for years in an area that is bright red, solid Republican. The ultraright representative wants to destroy everything. The area is called “Cancer Alley.” People are dying from cancer from the pollution from the chemical plants. They know it. They don’t like it. She was working with people who are dedicated environmentalists, working hard to try to clean the place up, turn away from the polluting industries — and who vote for the far-right Republican who is at the extreme of trying to destroy the environment.
When she looked into it, she got rational answers — people said, yes, they’re in favor of saving the environment. So what are they to do? A guy in a suit from Washington comes down here and tells them, “You can’t fish because the Bayou is polluted.” Does he do anything about the polluting industries? No. So why should they listen to him?
Is that an irrational answer? No, I don’t think so. Those are people that can be reached. It’s not a lost cause. But it’s going to take serious, committed work, with sympathy, understanding, and dedication. We don’t have to cover up what’s going on among the major criminals. But there are possibilities to move forward.
DB: Edward Said, in the twenty-fifth anniversary preface of his classic book Orientalism, wrote, “Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, there always is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission).”
Did the United States, in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, replicate what Said wrote?
NC: He’s absolutely right. What’s called “American exceptionalism” is mistaken in two respects. For one thing, the claims about what makes us exceptional are easily disproven. For another, there’s nothing exceptional about it. It was the same with every other major power.
While France was officially committed to “exterminating” the Algerians, French intellectuals were praising the civilizing mission of France. While Britain was carrying out some of its worst atrocities in India, John Stuart Mill — a respectable intellectual, if anybody was — was writing about it. He knew all about it. He was an official of the East India Company while this was going on: huge massacres repressing an Indian uprising, moves to invade and conquer more of India so that Britain could extend its monopoly of the opium trade. The opium trade was the biggest narcotrafficking racket in history, a source of a lot of British wealth, [carried out] in order to break into China by force and destroy it. While that was going on, John Stuart Mill wrote an essay on intervention, which is read in law schools as if it was an opposition to intervention.
But when you read it, it turns out that what he was saying was, Britain is such an angelic power that others can’t understand us. They heap obloquy upon us. They think we’re working for cross ends, because we are so much above the human race that they cannot perceive our dedication to the highest goals. That includes bringing civilization to India, to barbaric India. And it’s our responsibility to do it by smashing them in the face, murdering them, and conquering them to extend our opium monopoly so we can break into China. He didn’t add that part, I added it. But that’s what he knew was happening. Well, that’s John Stuart Mill — not a right-winger, the peak of human enlightenment.
We can go on. If we had records from Attila the Hun, we’d probably find the same thing. You have to try hard to find an exception in human history. And the role of the intellectual is to praise it, to say how wonderful we are. Oh, maybe we make mistakes. After all, anybody can make mistakes. But we’re basically dedicated to the highest good.
Take one example: the end of the Vietnam War, 1975. Every big name had to write an article about it. I reviewed them. They’re quite interesting. They range from the hawks to the doves. The hawks were saying, “We were stabbed in the back. The peace movement killed us. If we’d been able to fight harder, we could have won.” That’s on the right — that’s not interesting. What’s interesting is the so-called left. You get people like Anthony Lewis, about as strong an antiwar voice as you could find anywhere in the mainstream. He wrote an article in the New York Times in which he said the war began with “blundering efforts to do good.” Evidence that these were efforts to do good? No, that’s an axiom. They were “efforts to do good” because we did them. Blundering? Well, it didn’t work. So it started with blundering efforts to do good by definition.
But by 1969, it was clearly a disaster. We couldn’t bring democracy to the people of South Vietnam at a cost that was acceptable to ourselves. That’s the extreme criticism on the Left. Were we trying to bring democracy? You don’t have to argue that that’s true by definition again. Was it an effort to do good? By definition, it was, because we’re so magnificent. Is the only issue that the cost was too high? Well, you could think of some other issues. Could it possibly have been the worst crime of aggression since World War II, of the kind for which German war criminals were hanged at Nuremberg? Well, it couldn’t have been that, even though it was.
At the same time, US public opinion was being sampled. The main intensive studies were the Council on Foreign Relations, which does extensive regular studies of public opinion on foreign affairs. In 1975, they asked a lot of questions. One was, “What do you think about the war in Vietnam?” It turned out that 70 percent of the unwashed masses said the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake. A mere 70 percent.
They continued asking that question for about fifteen years and got pretty much the same answer. Finally, the director of research, a good liberal political scientist, asked himself the obvious question: “Why are they giving this answer?” And he gave the response: “They’re saying this because too many Americans died.” Maybe. But maybe they were saying it because they thought the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral. There would have been a way to find that out by asking the question, but you can’t do that — because it’s axiomatic that they must be like the liberal doves, only concerned with the cost to us. It’s got to be. What else could it be? Well, we don’t know. I have a suspicion that a lot of them thought it was fundamentally wrong and immoral, but that couldn’t enter the discussion.
If you said anything like that, you are like what McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote in Foreign Affairs. Yes, we made some mistakes, some things went wrong, and it’s worth discussing them. Then he said there are “the wild men in the wings,” people like you and me. The wild men in the wings who say it wasn’t just mistaken tactics, there was something worse: a crime. Such people are obviously so crazy that we can’t even talk to them. They’re the wild men in the wings. That’s the answer to the question.
Every other great society has done pretty much the same thing. There is no American exceptionalism. It’s a repeat of other great powers and their violence and terror. People talk about “endless wars” — the endless wars for the United States began in 1783 and have not stopped since.
As soon as the British yoke was lifted, the colonists set forth on their mission. One of the leading diplomatic histories of the United States, by Thomas Bailey, says that the colonists were free to set forth on their mission “of felling trees and Indians” and extending to the natural borders. It’s pretty honest. We had to turn to felling trees and Indians and extending the natural borders. That means invading and attacking the Indian nations, exterminating them, smashing them to pieces, breaking treaties, and genocidal attacks, right to the end of the century. Meanwhile, they picked up half of Mexico, in what President Ulysses S. Grant called one of the most “wicked wars” in history. Accurately, it was a war of aggression. Arizona, where I’m living right now; California; stealing Hawaii from its inhabitants by force and guile; moving on to invade the Philippines, killing a couple of hundred thousand people, then on to intervention, violence, terror, aggression. That’s American exceptionalism. And it’s not exceptional.
Other great imperial powers have acted similarly or worse. Now take our predecessor, Britain. Where did British wealth come from? Piracy. During the Elizabethan era, British pirates were robbing Spanish ships on the high seas to steal bullion. That was punishable by death. That was Sir Francis Drake, a great hero. That’s a large part of British capital. Then it switched to slavery, the worst slavery in human history. Cotton was the oil of the early Industrial Revolution. The British got it from their colonies, along with sugar, tea, and tobacco, then cotton from the American South. One of the reasons for their conquering Egypt was to get more cotton. After slavery came narcotrafficking. Opium was one of the main commodities in international trade in the nineteenth century, for the reasons I mentioned. That’s British wealth.
Look at France. An estimated 20 percent of French wealth came from vicious, murderous slavery in Haiti. When the Haitians finally won their freedom, France thanked them, of course, by indemnifying the people who lost their property. You’ve got to pay them off, by imposing a debt burden on Haiti to pay the French for daring to become free — a debt that was not paid off until the 1940s. There was recently a French commission, headed, I think, by Régis Debray, a leftist, that discussed whether France ought to do something about it. They concluded, “No, we have no responsibility.” That’s the civilizing mission.
Look at Germany. Some of the first genocides of the twentieth century in Africa, in Namibia. Look at Italy. Genocide in Libya in the early part of the century, and another one in the late 1920s in Libya. The invasion of Ethiopia. They compensate for that by forcing people fleeing from Libya either back to misery where they’re fleeing from or to death in the Mediterranean. That’s the way they deal with their legacy.
DB: You mentioned exterminating. In the book that you did a decade ago called Gaza in Crisis, with the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, you have a chapter entitled “Exterminate All the Brutes,” which are the exact words of the deranged Kurtz character in Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness.
NC: Actually, I was borrowing the word “exterminate” from a more directly relevant source, John Quincy Adams, the secretary of state and president, the intellectual father of manifest destiny. He was responsible for some of the major atrocities [of the era], the Seminole War in Florida and others. In his later years, reflecting on what happened, he lamented the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty.” That was before the worst of the atrocities, which were in California later. That’s the father of Manifest Destiny.
He was right. He was not the first to use it. The secretary of war under Washington, Henry Knox, said something similar: We’re exterminating the natives in ways that are worse than those of the conquistadors in South America. They knew what they were doing.
George Washington said, the Indians are like wolves, savages in human form, “beasts” that have to be driven into the wilderness. That was George Washington. He was known by the Iroquois as the “town destroyer” — because even before the Revolutionary War was over, he launched a major campaign of destruction among the Iroquois nations. There were exceptions, of course. But that was the overwhelming pattern.
That’s the mainstream. You always have wild men in the wings, who are usually treated pretty badly, depending on the nature of the society, but this goes all through history. Go back to classical Greece. The guy who had to commit suicide by taking the hemlock was the man who was guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens by asking too many questions. We don’t want that kind of wild man in the wings. It’s pretty much standard throughout history. The kind of treatment they get depends on the society and who they are.
So, in the United States, if you’re a privileged person like Edward Said or me, punishments are not too bad. Maybe vilification, denunciation. Said had to have police protection. He had a buzzer in his apartment so he could call the police in case he was attacked. If you’re Fred Hampton, a Black Panther organizer, you can be assassinated by the national political police. It depends on who you are.
DB: Let’s now move on to Afghanistan and what happened there, and the comparisons that the armchair pundits have been making to Saigon in 1975. In an interview I did with him in early September, Tariq Ali called what happened in Afghanistan “a huge blow to the American empire,” and he said that “No amount of spin can cover up this debacle.” Is it a bit early to be writing the obituary of the American empire?
NC: As far as the American empire is concerned, it’s a blip. Literally a blip. From the point of view of the American empire, the invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake. George W. Bush and his surrounding courtiers — Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney — decided to invade Afghanistan without any strategic objective.
The best description of what they were doing was given by the most respected figure of the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan, Abdul Haq. In October 2001, he had an important interview with Anatol Lieven, who’s a specialist on Central Asia. Lieven asked him, Why do you think the Americans are invading? Haq said, They know they’re going to kill plenty of Afghans. They’re going to undermine our efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within, which Haq outlined, which were feasible. But they don’t care, he said. They want to show their muscle and intimidate everyone. So they’re invading.
That’s pretty much what Donald Rumsfeld was saying. We now know what he was saying. At the time, the Taliban offered to surrender, totally — which, of course, meant giving up any remnants of al-Qaeda that were there. Rumsfeld’s answer was, “We do not negotiate surrenders. We want to smash you to pieces.” He didn’t say this — I’m adding what was in his head. We want to smash you to pieces to show our muscle, intimidate everyone, then go on to our real targets. We don’t care about Afghanistan. We want to go on to Iraq, then on to the rest of the Middle East. All that actually was publicized. I’m not making that up. So they invaded Afghanistan.
But they didn’t know that al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11. In fact, eight months after 9/11, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, gave his first major press conference, in which he was asked, of course, what have you found out about 9/11? And he said — this is after probably the greatest investigation in history — “We assume that it was probably al-Qaeda, but we haven’t been able to prove it.”
That’s eight months after the United States invaded to show its muscle and intimidate everyone. Of course, that’s not the story you read. But it’s the fact.
If they wanted to capture al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and others, a small police operation would have sufficed — probably with the cooperation of the Taliban, who at that point were quite eager to get rid of this burden. They couldn’t just give him over to foreigners. That would be a horrible violation of the tribal code. But they probably would have cooperated. In fact, they made various offers about extradition.
But nothing. “We do not negotiate surrender.” Bush, the decider, was asked later, “What do you think about al-Qaeda?” He said, “We don’t really care, we’re not interested in them. We don’t know where they are. We’re interested in the bigger game.”
By then, they were on to Iraq, the real prize. We can smash up and destroy Iraq, get control of its oil — that’s something real. Then we can use that as a springboard. Who cares about Afghanistan?
Pulling out of Afghanistan was, in fact, withdrawing from a mistake for once. It didn’t have the kind of strategic objectives that the Vietnam War did — which were incidentally, partially achieved. The Vietnam War was partially a success. If you look back at the original motivations, back in the early 1950s, they were largely achieved. In Afghanistan, nothing was achieved. It was a mistake. It’s a disaster for Afghans, but it’s not our business.
Now, the question is, can we do something for compensation? Can we help them in some way? Well, what we ought to be doing is joining with the regional powers — China, Central Asian governments, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Russia — to try to offer whatever assistance we can to the Afghans, so they can somehow overcome the crisis of forty years of war, which we were involved in all along. They’re desperate, they’re starving, they don’t have food. We can help with that.
What we’re actually doing is holding on to their funds, which happen to be in the New York banks, holding on to them and not giving them back. Pressuring the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank not to give loans. We actually are joining with India, your favorite country [editor’s note: Barsamian has been banned from India since 2011], to undermine the efforts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to take steps to assist the Afghans. The United States is not a member — they don’t accept the United States. But joining with its US master to undercut the efforts of the regional powers to do something to reduce the terror and violence that the Afghans are suffering by offering them some aid, trying to work with them, trying to integrate them into the region somehow — India and the United States are blocking it. Well, it doesn’t have to happen.
So that’s what we can do now. As well as, of course, providing ample assistance to the Afghan refugees. That’s our first responsibility. Unfortunately, we have a sadistic organization that controls half the government and just tried to cut aid to Afghans from the agreement to raise the debt ceiling. Fortunately, that didn’t work. That’s the country we’re in.
DB: In your book Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal, you say, “I was involved in civil disobedience for many years, during some periods intensely, and think it’s a reasonable tactic — sometimes.” Why “sometimes”?
NC: Sometimes it’s counterproductive.
DB: In what way?
NC: Because it brings a backlash that is worse than the action itself, because people aren’t prepared to understand it. Civil disobedience, to be an effective tactic, has to follow educational programs, which bring the target audience to understand what you’re doing. I have good friends who I greatly respect and who are marvelous people, who don’t understand this. Quaker activists, Catholic activists who go into the submarine base in Connecticut and smash the hulls of nuclear submarines without any preparation for it. The workforce is infuriated. Why are you taking our jobs? What the hell are you doing? A bunch of crazies. The general community doesn’t understand what’s going on.
They go to trial. They get to stand up and say, “God told me to do it,” or whatever it is. A lot of movement resources are devoted to defending them at the trial; you go down and testify. What’s the achievement? It’s negative. That’s civil disobedience from really marvelous people who just aren’t thinking that civil disobedience is a tactic. It’s not a principle. It’s a tactic undertaken to try to protect victims. That’s when you undertake it. Otherwise, no.