Noam Chomsky [is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, author, and lecturer. He is an Institute Professor emeritus and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[Courtesy: http://chomsky.info/bios/2004----.htm]
Chomsky on World Ownership Michael Shank January 23,2008 Editor: John Feffer
Michael Shank: Is the leading Democrats’ policy vis-à-vis Iraq at all different from the Bush administration’s policy?
Noam Chomsky: It’s somewhat different. The situation is very similar to Vietnam. The opposition to the war today in elite sectors, including every viable candidate, is pure cynicism, completely unprincipled: “If we can get away with it, it’s fine. If it costs us too much, it’s bad.” That’s the way the Vietnam opposition was in the elite sectors.
Take, say, Anthony Lewis, who’s about as far to the critical extreme as you can find in the media. In his final words evaluating the war in The New York Times in 1975, he said the war began with “blundering efforts to do good” but by 1969, namely a year after the American business community had turned against the war, it was clear that the United States “could not impose a solution except at a price too costly to itself,” so therefore it was a “disastrous mistake.” Nazi generals could have said the same thing after Stalingrad and probably did. That’s the extreme position in the left liberal spectrum. Or take the distinguished historian and Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger. When the war was going sour under LBJ, he wrote that “we all pray” that the hawks are right and that more troops will lead to victory. And he knew what victory meant. He said we’re leaving “a land of ruin and wreck,” but “we all pray” that escalation will succeed and if it does “we may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government.” But probably the hawks are wrong, so escalation is a bad idea.
You can translate the rhetoric almost word by word into the elite, including political elite, opposition to the Iraq war.
It’s based on two principles. The first principle is: “we totally reject American ideals.” The only people who accept American ideals are Iraqis. The United States totally rejects them. What American ideals? The principles of the Nuremburg decision. The Nuremburg tribunal, which is basically American, expressed high ideals, which we profess. Namely, of all the war crimes, aggression is the supreme international crime, which encompasses within it all of the evil that follows. It’s obvious that the Iraq invasion is a pure case of aggression and therefore, according to our ideals, it encompasses all the evil that follows, like sectarian warfare, al-Qaeda Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and everything else. The chief U.S. Prosecutor Robert Jackson, addressed the tribunal and said, “we should remember that we’re handing these Nazi war criminals a poisoned chalice. If we ever sip from it we must be subject to the same principles or else the whole thing is a farce.” Well, it seems that almost no one in the American elite accepts that or can even understand it. But Iraqis accept it.
The latest study of Iraqi opinion, carried out by the American military, provides an illustration. There is an interesting article about it by Karen DeYoung in the Washington Post. She said the American military is very excited and cheered to see the results of this latest study, which showed that Iraqis have “shared beliefs.” They’re coming together. They’re getting to political reconciliation. Well, what are the shared beliefs? The shared beliefs are that the Americans are responsible for all the horrors that took place in Iraq, as the Nuremberg principles hold, and they should get out. That’s the shared belief. So yes, they accept American principles. But the American government rejects them totally as does elite opinion. And the same is true in Europe, incidentally. That’s point number one.
The second point is that there is a shared assumption here and in the West that we own the world. Unless you accept that assumption, the entire discussion that is taking place is unintelligible. For example, you see a headline in the newspaper, as I saw recently in the Christian Science Monitor, something like “New Study of Foreign Fighters in Iraq.” Who are the foreign fighters in Iraq? Some guy who came in from Saudi Arabia. How about the 160,000 American troops? Well, they’re not foreign fighters in Iraq because we own the world; therefore we can’t be foreign fighters anywhere. Like, if the United States invades Canada, we won’t be foreign. And if anybody resists it, they’re enemy combatants, we send them to Guantanamo.
The same goes for the entire discussion about Iranian interference in Iraq. If you’re looking at this from some rational standpoint, you have to collapse in ridicule. Could there be Allied interference in Vichy France? There can’t be. The country was conquered and it’s under military occupation. And of course we understand that. When the Russians complained about American interference in Afghanistan, we’d laugh. But when we talk about Iranian interference in Iraq, going back to viable political candidates, every single one of them says that this is outrageous – meaning, the Iranians don’t understand that we own the world. So if anybody disrupts any action of ours, no matter what it is, the supreme international crime or anything else, they’re the criminals. And we send them to Guantanamo and they don’t get rights and so on. And the Supreme Court argues about it.
In fact, the same is true almost anywhere you look. Since we own the world, everything we do is necessarily right. It can be too costly and then we don’t like it. Or there could be a couple of bad apples who do the wrong thing like Abu Ghraib. Going back to the Nuremburg tribunal, they did not try the SS men who threw people into the extermination chambers. The people who were tried were the people at the top, like von Ribbentrop, the foreign minister, who was accused of having supported a preemptive war. The Germans invaded Norway to try to preempt a British attack against Germany. By our standards they were totally justified. But Powell is not being tried. He is not going to be sentenced to hanging.
Shank: And with a Democrat president, will that thinking fundamentally change?
Chomsky: It’ll change. There’s a pretty narrow political spectrum, and in fact, intellectual and moral spectrum. But it’s not zero. And the Bush administration is way out at the extreme. In fact, so far out at the extreme that they’ve come under unprecedented attack from the mainstream.
I quoted Schlesinger on the Vietnam War. To his credit, he is perhaps the one person in the mainstream who took a principled stand on the Iraq War. When the bombing started in 2003, Schlesinger did write an op-ed in which he said that this is a day which will live in infamy, quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the United States follows the policies of imperial Japan. That’s principled.
There was no such principled critique when the liberal Democrats were doing it. But his critique of the invasion of Iraq, from its first days, was unusual. It is probably unique, so much so that it’s kind of suppressed. It reflects, first of all, a change of sentiment in the country, and also the fact that the Bush administration is so far out that they’re denounced right in the mainstream.
When the Bush administration came out with its National Security Strategy in September 2002, which basically was a call for the invasion of Iraq, Foreign Affairs, which is as respectable as you can get, ran an article just a couple of weeks later by John Ikenberry, a mainstream historian and analyst, in which he pretty sharply condemned what he called this new imperial grand strategy. He said it’s going to cause a lot of trouble; it’s going to get us in danger. That’s quite unusual. But in the case of Bush, there’s plenty more like him. So yes, they’re way out at the extreme. Any candidate now, maybe anyone except Giuliani, will moderate somewhat the policies.
Shank: With Bush’s campaign in the Gulf, rallying Gulf States against Iran, what’s the strategy now? What’s the importance of the timing of his tour?
Chomsky: First of all, remember that in the United States, which is a rich powerful state which always wins everything, history is an irrelevance. Historical amnesia is required. But among the victims that’s not true. They remember history, all over the Third World. The history that Iranians remember is the correct one. The United States has been torturing Iran, without a stop, since 1953. Overthrew the parliamentary government, installed the tyrant Shah Reza Pahlavi, and backed him through horrible torture and everything else. The minute the Shah was overthrown, the United States moved at once to try and overthrow the new regime. The United States turned for support to Saddam Hussein and his attack against Iran, in which hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered with chemical weapons and so on. The United States continued to support Saddam.
In 1989, the Iran-Iraq war was all over. George Bush I, supposedly the moderate, invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the United States for advanced training in weapons production. Iranians don’t forget that. After what they’ve just been through, they should be able to see the total cynicism of what’s happening. Immediately after the war, which the United States basically won for Iraq by breaking the embargo, shooting down Iranian commercial airplanes, and so on, the Iranians were convinced that they couldn’t fight the United States. So they capitulated. Immediately after that the United States imposed harsh sanctions, which continue, they got worse. Now the United States is threatening to attack. This is a violation of the UN charter, if anybody cares, which bars the threat of force. But outlaw states don’t care about things like that.
And it’s a credible threat. Just a couple of weeks ago there was a confrontation in the Gulf. Here the story is: “look how awful the Iranians are.” But suppose Iranian warships were sailing through Massachusetts Bay or the Gulf of Mexico. Would we think that’s fine? But since we own the world of course it’s fine when we do it off their shores. And we’re there for the benefit of the world, no matter what we do, so it’s fine. But Iranians aren’t going to see it that way. They don’t like the threats of destruction. They don’t like the fact that it’s a very credible threat. They’re surrounded on all sides by hostile American forces. They’ve got the American Navy sending combat units to the Gulf.
Take this recent Annapolis meeting about Israel-Palestine. Why did they pick Annapolis? Is that the only meeting place in the Washington area? Well, Iranians presumably notice that Annapolis is the base from which the U.S. Navy is being sent to threaten Iran. You think they can’t see that? American editorial writers and commentators can’t see it, but I’m sure Iranians can.
So yes, they’re living under serious constant threat. It’s never ended since 1953. And Bush is now desperately trying to organize what Condoleezza Rice calls the “moderate Arab states,” namely the most extreme, fundamentalist tyrannies in the world, like Saudi Arabia. So the “moderate Arab states,” they’re trying hard to organize them to join the United States in confronting Iran. Well, they’re not going along. They don’t tell Bush and Rice go home. They’re polite and so on but they’re not going along. They’re continuing to enter into limited but real relations with Iran. They don’t want a conflict with them.
Shank: Did the National Intelligence Estimate offer a reprieve, any window at all?
Chomsky: I think so. I think it pulled the rug out from under people like Cheney and Bush who probably wanted to have a war to end up their glorious regime. But it’s going to be pretty hard to do it now. Although Olmert just announced again yesterday that Israel is leaving open the option of attacking Iran, if Israel decides that it is a threat. Israel, which is a U.S. client state, is granted a right similar to that of the United States. The United States owns the world and can do anything, and its client states can be regional hegemons. Israel wants to make sure that it dominates the region and therefore can carry out whatever policies it wants to in the occupied territories, invading Lebanon or whatever it happens to be. The one threat that they cannot overcome on their own is Iran.
Israel and Iran had pretty good relations right through the 1980s. They were clandestine relations but not bad. And now they recognize that Iran is the one barrier to their complete domination of the region. So therefore they want the United States, the big boy, to step in and take care of it and if the United States won’t, they claim they’ll do it. I don’t think they would unless the United States authorized it. It’s much too dangerous. They would do it only if they’re pretty sure they can bring the United States in.
Shank: The presidential candidates in the Democratic Party are trying to one-up each other on who can be more militaristic vis-à-vis Pakistan, who would bomb first if there was actionable intelligence. What’s Washington’s role in helping Pakistan now? Should it have a role and if it does what should it look like?
Chomsky: Again, there’s a little bit of history that matters to people outside centers of power. First of all, the United States supported Pakistani military governments ever since Pakistan was created. The worst period was the 1980s, when the Reagan administration strongly supported the Zia ul Haq regime, which was a brutal harsh tyranny and also a deeply Islamic tyranny. So that’s when the madrassas were established, Islamic fundamentalism was introduced, they no longer studied science in schools and things like that, and also when they were developing nuclear weapons.
The Reagan administration pretended that it didn’t know about the nuclear weapons development so that it could get congressional authorization every year for more funding to the ISI, the intelligence agencies, the fundamentalist tyranny and so on. It ended up holding a tiger by the tail. It commonly happens. The Reagan administration also helped create what turned into al-Qaeda in Afghanistan at the same time. It’s all interrelated. And they left Afghanistan in the hands of brutal, vicious, fundamentalist gangsters, like their favorite Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who got his kicks out of throwing acid in the face of women in Kabul who weren’t dressed properly. That’s who Reagan was supporting.
The United States also tolerated the Khan proliferation system. In fact the United States is still tolerating it. Khan is under what’s called house arrest, meaning just about anything he likes. And it continues with the support of the Musharraf dictatorship. Now the United States is kind of stuck. The population strongly opposes the dictatorship. The United States tried to bring in some kind of compromise with Bhutto, whom they thought would be a pliable candidate. But she was assassinated under what remain unclear circumstances. The ISI, the intelligence agencies who are extremely powerful in Pakistan, have withdrawn support for the extremist militants in the tribal areas and now they’re beginning to fight back. In fact it was just reported that one of their leaders has said that they’re going to continue to resist the Pakistani Army as they’ve been doing.
People who know the Middle East like Robert Fisk have been saying for years that Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world, for all kinds of reasons. For one, it’s falling apart. There are rebellions in the Baluchi areas. The tribal areas are now out of control of the ISI. There is a Sindhi opposition movement. It could very well be a resistance movement especially after Bhutto’s assassination, since she was Sindhi. There are strong anti-Punjabi feelings developing, against the Army, the elite and so on.
So the country is barely being held together. It’s got nuclear weapons. It’s very anti-American. Take a look at popular opinion; it’s very strongly anti-American, because they remember the history. We may forget it. We tell ourselves how nice and wonderful we are, but other people, especially the people who are at the wrong end of the club, they see the world as it is. So it’s very anti-American. If the United States wants to do something there it has to get a surrogate to come in and do it. Even the dictator that the United States supports, Musharraf, and the army are strongly against any direct U.S. involvement in the tribal areas, which the United States is now talking about. Who knows what that could lead to, some other war against a country with nuclear weapons?
The Bush administration is really playing with fire. I don’t think it has a lot of options at this point. If I were asked to recommend a policy I wouldn’t know what to say. Except to try to withdraw support from the dictatorship and allow the popular forces to do something. The United States, for example, gave no support to the lawyers and their opposition. It could have. The United States is not all powerful, but it could have done something. But when Obama says, “Okay we’ll bomb them,” that’s not very helpful.
Michael Shank: In December 2007, seven South American countries officially launched the Bank of the South in response to growing opposition to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other International Financial Institutions. How important is this shift and will it spur other responses in the developing world? Will it at some point completely undermine the reach of the World Bank and the IMF?
Noam Chomsky: I think it’s very important, especially because, contrary to the impression often held here, the biggest country Brazil is supporting it. The U.S. propaganda, western propaganda, is trying to establish a divide between the good left and the bad left. The good left, like Lula in Brazil, are governments they would’ve overthrown by force 40 years ago. But now that’s their hope, one of their saviors. But the divide is pretty artificial. Sure, they’re different. Lula isn’t Chavez. But they get along very well, they cooperate. And they are cooperating on the Bank of the South.
The Bank of the South could turn out to be a viable institution. There are plenty of problems in the region. But one of the striking things that’s been happening in South America for quite a few years now is that they are beginning to overcome for the first time, since the Spanish invasion, the conflicts among the countries and the separation of the countries. It was a very disintegrated continent. If you look at transportation systems they don’t have much to do with each other. They’re mostly oriented toward the imperial power that was dominant. So you send out resources, you send out capital, the rich tiny elite have their chateaus on the Riviera, and that sort of thing. But they have not much to do with each other.
There was also a huge internal divide between a rich, mostly white, Europeanized elite and a massive population. For the first time, both of those kinds of disintegration, internal to the countries and among the countries, are being confronted at least. You can’t say they’re overcome but they’re being confronted. The Bank of the South is one example.
Actually what’s happening in Bolivia is a striking example. The mostly white, Europeanized elite, which is a minority, happens to be sitting on most of the hydrocarbon reserves. And for the first time Bolivia is becoming democratic. So it’s therefore bitterly hated by the West, which despises democracy, because it’s much too dangerous. But when the indigenous majority actually took political power for the first time, in a very democratic election of the kind we can’t imagine here, the reaction in the West was quite hostile. I recall, for example, an article - I think it was the Financial Times - condemning Morales as moving towards dictatorship because he was calling for nationalization of oil. They omitted to mention, with the support of about 90% of the population. But that’s tyranny. Tyranny means you don’t do what the United States says. Just like moderation means that you’re like Saudi Arabia and you do do what we say.
There are now moves toward autonomy in the elite-dominated sectors in Bolivia, maybe secession, which will probably be backed by the United States to try and undercut the development of a democratic system in which the majority, which happens to be indigenous, will play their proper role, namely, cultural rights, control over resources, political and economic policy, and so on. That’s happening elsewhere but strikingly in Bolivia.
The Bank of the South is a step towards integration of the countries. Could it weaken the IFIs, yes it can, in fact they’re being weakened already. The IMF has been mostly thrown out of South America. Argentina quite explicitly said, “Okay, we’re ridding ourselves of the IMF.” And for pretty good reasons. They had been the poster child of the IMF. They had followed its policies rigorously and it led to terrible economic collapse. They did pull out of the collapse, namely by flatly rejecting the advice of the IMF. And it succeeded. They were able to pay off their debts, restructure their debts and pay them off with the help of Venezuela which picked up a substantial part of the debt. Brazil in its own way paid off its debt and rid itself of the IMF. Bolivia is moving in the same direction.
The IMF is in trouble now because it is losing its reserves. It was functioning on debt collection and if countries either restructured their debt or refused to pay it, they’re in trouble. Incidentally the countries could legitimately refuse to pay much of the debt, because, in my opinion at least, it was illegal in the first place. For example, if I lend you money, and I know you’re a bad risk, so I get high interest payments, and then you tell me at one point, sorry I can’t pay anymore, I can’t call on my neighbors to force you to pay me. Or I can’t call on your neighbors to pay it off. But that’s the way the IMF works. You lend money to a dictatorship and an elite, the population has nothing to do with it, you get very high interest because it’s obviously risky, they say they can’t pay it off, you say okay your neighbors will pay for it. It’s called structural adjustment. And my neighbors will pay me off. That’s the IMF as a creditors’ cartel. You get higher taxes from the north.
The World Bank is not the same institution, but there’s the same kind of conflicts and confrontations going on. In Bolivia, one of the major background events that led to the uprising of the majority indigenous population to finally take political power was an effort by the World Bank to privatize water. Take an economics course, they’ll tell you that you ought to pay the market price and so on. True value, yes, very nice, except that means poor people, which is most of the population, can’t drink. Well that’s called an externality; don’t worry about things like that.
What the population did - and it was a big conflict, mostly in Cochabamba - peasants just forced the international water companies, Bechtel and others, just to pull out. It was supported by a solidarity movement here, it was quite interesting. But the World Bank had to pull out of that project and there are others like it. On the other hand, some of the things they do are constructive. It’s not a totally destructive institution. But that’s weakening too.
The same thing is happening in Asia. Take the Asian Development Bank. At the time of the Asian financial crisis, in 1997-98, Japan wanted to work through the Asian Development Bank to create a substantial reserve which would enable countries to survive the debt crisis instead of selling off their assets to the West. The United States just blocked it. But they can’t do that anymore. The reserves in the Asian countries are just too high. In fact the United States survives on funding from Japan and China, which subsidizes the high consumption-high borrowing economy here. I don’t think the United States at this point could tell the Asian Development Bank, “I’m sorry you can’t do this.” That’s somewhat parallel to the Bank of the South. Similar things are now happening in the Middle East, with sovereign funds and so on.
Shank: With these institutions springing up in the developing world as alternatives to the IMF and the World Bank, what similar initiatives will emerge in the developing world regarding currencies?
Chomsky: It’s already happening. Kuwait has already made a limited move toward a basket of currencies. The United Arab Emirates and Dubai are moving toward their own partial development funds. Saudi Arabia, that’s the big important one, if they join in it’ll become a major independent center of funding, lending, purchasing, and so on. It’s already happening. Investment in the rich countries and to some extent in the region, particularly North Africa. Separate development funds. It’s a limited move; they don’t want to anger the United States.
Of course they rely on the United States in many ways, the elites. China, in particular, relies on the U.S. market. They don’t want to undermine it. The same with Japan. So they’re willing to buy treasury bonds instead of more profitable investments in order to sustain the U.S. economy, which is their market. But it’s a very fragile situation. They very well may turn elsewhere and they’re beginning to. I don’t think anyone knows what would happen if the reserve-rich countries were to turn to profitable investment rather than supporting the U.S. high-consumption, high-debt economy.
Shank: The West resists countries nationalizing their oil supplies and their gas supplies but that trend continues regardless. Where is this headed? Do you see all oil- and-gas rich countries getting together and establishing an alternative market?
Chomsky: They tried with OPEC, which to some extent does it. But they have to face the fact that the West will not allow it to happen. If you go back to 1974, that was the first move toward oil independence by the oil-rich countries. Just read what American journalists and commentators were writing. They were saying they have no right to the oil. The more moderate writers were saying the oil should be internationalized for the benefit of the world. American agricultural wealth shouldn’t be internationalized for the benefit of the world, but the oil of Saudi Arabia should be because they’re not following what we tell them to do anymore.
The more extreme people, I guess it was Irving Kristol, said insignificant nations like insignificant people sometimes gain illusions about their own significance. So therefore the age of gunboat diplomacy is never over, we’ll just take it from them by force. Robert Tucker, a serious international relations specialist who is considered pretty moderate, said it’s just a scandal that we’re letting them get away with running their own resources. Why are we sitting here, we’ve got the military force to take them. Go back to somebody like George Kennan, who’s considered a great humanist. When he was in the planning sector, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he said harsh measures may be necessary for “protection of our resources” -- which happen to be in some other country. That’s just an accident of geography. They’re our resources and we have to protect them by harsh measures, including police states and so on.
Take Bill Clinton. He had a doctrine too, every president has a doctrine. He was less brazen about it than Bush, didn’t get criticized a lot, but his doctrine was more extreme than the Bush doctrine if taken literally. The official Clinton doctrine presented to Congress was that the United States has the unilateral right to use military force to protect markets and resources. The Bush doctrine said we’ve got to have a pretext, like we’ve got to claim they’re a threat. Clinton doctrine didn’t even go that far, we don’t need any pretext. With markets and resources, we have a right to make sure that we control them, which is logical on the principle that we own the world anyway so of course we have that right.
You’re going to have to look far in the political spectrum to find any deviation from this. So if the oil-rich countries were to try to really take independent control of the resources, there would be a very harsh reaction. The United States, by now, has a military system; more is spent on the military system than the rest of the world put together. There’s a reason for that. That’s not to defend the borders.
Shank: Do you think India will swing towards Russia and China as it positions itself in its allegiances or will it continue to cozy up with the U.S. post-nuclear agreement?
Chomsky: It’s going in both directions. Part of the purpose of the nuclear agreement from the U.S. point of view was to try to encourage them to move into the U.S. orbit. But the Indians are playing a double game. They’re improving relations with China too. Trade relations, other relations, joint investment are improving. They haven’t been accepted as members but they’re official observers in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is mainly China-based but is a big developing organization that could be a counter to NATO. It includes the Central Asian states. It includes Russia with its huge resources, and China, a big growing economy. Observers include India, Pakistan and, crucially, Iran which is accepted as an observer and may join. But it excludes the United States.
The United States wanted to join as an observer. It was rejected. The SCO has officially declared that U.S. forces should leave the Middle East. And it’s part of a move toward developing what’s called an Asian Energy Security grid and other steps that will integrate that region and allow it to move toward independence from imperial control, Western control. South Korea has not yet joined but it might - another major industrial power. Japan is so far accepting its role as a U.S. client, but that’s not graven in stone either.
So there are these centrifugal developments taking place all over the world.
SOURCE: Foreign Policy in Focus http://www.fpif.org/
Michael Shank is a contributor to Foreign Polcy In Focus and an analyst with George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. http://www.michaelshank.net/biography.html