Chomsky on World Ownership

Noam Chomsky is a noted linguist, author, and foreign policy expert. On January 15, Michael Shank interviewed him on the latest developments in U.S. policy toward Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. In the first part of this two-part interview, Chomsky also discussed how the U.S. government’s belief in its ownership of the world shapes its foreign policy.

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 is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) and an analyst with George Mason University