Noam Chomsky, internationally renowned MIT professor, practically invented modern linguistics. In addition to his pioneering work in that field he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice. Author of scores of books, his latest include Perilous Power, The Essential Chomsky, and What We Say Goes. I talked with him on September 10, 2008.
BARSAMIAN: Given the unpopularity of Bush, the wars, and the tumbling economy, why isn't Obama way ahead of McCain?
CHOMSKY: That's an interesting question. Most of the models that political scientists use predict that the Democrats should be way ahead. In fact, by and large they are way ahead, except on the presidential vote. So you have to look for other factors.
One is probably race. It's well known that when people are asked on polls whether they have questions about racial prejudice, they deny that they have it. But when you see their behavior, you see that they're underestimating their own racial prejudice. Another element is class. The Republican public relations propaganda system, which is quite a formidable apparatus, has succeeded, as they succeeded in 2004, in portraying the Democrats and Obama as the representative of the elitist liberals who run the world and have contempt for common folk like you and me. And their candidate is kind of like an ordinary guy. It happens he can't remember how many houses he owns, but let's forget about that. George Bush, a little spoiled brat who went to Yale, is the kind of guy you would like to meet in a bar and wants to go cut brush on his ranch, an ordinary, simple guy. I think they succeeded in doing that with Obama, in making him so he's presented as, first of all, black and, secondly, somehow strange, not like one of us—us meaning white, working-class American with blue eyes.
They haven't even gotten started revving up their slander and vilification machine, but it's an impressive apparatus. One good example, which has been studied in some detail by Ed Herman and David Peterson, is the way they've used the Jeremiah Wright case. They have a detailed article in the September Monthly Review.
Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor in Chicago.
This was the main story in the press for weeks, what Jeremiah Wright said. First of all, almost everything he said is entirely reasonable, even if it's unacceptable to mainstream ideology. But even the parts that merit criticism—like the U.S. organized AIDS to kill blacks or whatever it is—it's a marginal part of his message. The white preachers who support McCain have said similar or worse things. So, for example, Falwell and Robertson, I think, blamed 9/11 on the ACLU, gays, and so on. How could you get more outrageous than that?
Pat Robertson called openly for the assassination of Hugo Chavez.
See, that probably is considered acceptable. When Wright said the chickens are coming home to roost, incidentally—I think, quoting an American ambassador—that was considered horrendous. But when Falwell and Robertson say it's the ACLU and gays who are responsible, the press didn't make a fuss about that.
The other thing, which is sort of in the background, is that American elections systematically keep away from issues and focus on personality, character, and what are called values, whatever that means. They're pretty frank about it. McCain's campaign manager stated, this election is not about issues, it's about personality and character. And the press has always had a love affair with him. They portray him as a maverick, for which there is no evidence in his record. Also as a hero and an expert at national security. That part is interesting, too.
Let's imagine that, say, someone in Russia now running for office who was a pilot in the invasion of Afghanistan and was shot down while he was bombing heavily populated urban areas in Kabul, civilian areas, and was then tortured by Reagan's freedom fighters. We should sympathize with him for his fate at the hands of the people who tortured him. But how does that make you a hero and a specialist on national security? On the other hand, that's exactly what's being done with McCain. His expertise in national security is precisely that. But you can't raise that matter here because the jingoism and the commitment to the nobility of our military efforts is so high across the spectrum.
Just recently I read a column by James Carroll in the Boston Globe (September 8, 2008)—he's their kind of pacifist, former priest, moral, "left" critic about McCain—in which, among other things, he starts off by saying McCain is a man of honor with a heroic career. He made an interesting comment. He said that antiwar activists felt that they had to go to McCain to apologize and sort of beg forgiveness for their opposition to the war. Does some Russian who is opposed to the war in Afghanistan have to go to the pilot who was shot down bombing Kabul and apologize for his opposition to the war in Afghanistan?
Let's take the invasion of Iraq. Compare it to, say, Putin's invasion of Chechnya. There are a lot of differences, but let's compare it. The Russians invaded Chechnya, destroyed Grozny, carried out massacres, terror. They pacified it. C.J. Chivers of the New York Times was there a couple months ago to report that Grozny is now a booming city, there is building all over, everybody has electricity run by Chechens, you don't see Russian soldiers around. Do we praise Putin for his achievement? No. In fact, we condemn him for it. I suppose that if Petraeus could achieve even a fraction of what Putin achieved in Chechnya, he would be crowned king.
Surely Obama couldn't have any objection to it. His criticism of the war is completely unprincipled: it was strategic error; we should have put our resources elsewhere. Therefore, if the U.S. succeeds in achieving what Putin achieved in Chechnya, we should all be applauding. In fact, he's kind of silenced even at the limited achievement. It distinguishes him sharply from his base, a lot of which has principled objections to the war. He made sure to tell them that he didn't really mean it, for example, by picking Biden as his vice president. Biden was one of the strongest supporters of the war in the Senate.
I should say, incidentally, that I think picking Palin was a master stroke.
Why do you say that?
For one thing, she can't be criticized. If you criticize, it's sexist. Therefore, you have to kind of lay off. For another, she can effectively present herself, as she did, as a kind of hockey mom, five children, one of them is going to Iraq on September 11, her husband is a snowmobile champion, she hunts moose or whatever it is. So it kind of hits all the right bases for ordinary, hard-working, mainstream Americans as distinct from these "Cambridge elitists" on the other side.
One thing about McCain, the bombing campaign that he was participating in as a naval pilot was called Rolling Thunder. What was that exactly?
The U.S. basically attacked South Vietnam in 1962. But it was unable to crush the resistance in South Vietnam. The Johnson administration tried to put pressure on North Vietnam by bombing them. That's Rolling Thunder. So it started bombing North Vietnam to try to get them to compel the South Vietnamese guerillas to call off their resistance. It went up stage by stage. We know a lot about the planning because the Pentagon Papers and other documents have come out. I think McCain was shot down bombing Hanoi, so it's urban areas.
It's against this background that you have to look at the issue of war hero, national security expert, commentator on Iraq, and so on. The picture is so skewed in the direction of jingoist nationalism that elite, educated discussion, articulate discussion, can't even begin to be rational about the matter.
It's interesting that both candidates say the U.S. should lead the world.
Because we're so wonderful. They don't say we should lead the world by example, by doing good things. They mean run the world. And they're not inventing it. In some respects it traces back to the founding fathers. This is the only country in the world that was founded as, I think Washington's phrase was, a "nascent empire." By World War II and since, U.S. policy has been quite explicit—that the U.S. would emerge from the war as the world's dominant power. It should organize a world system that's conducive to U.S. interests and it should block sovereignty by others that interfere with U.S. interests. And the core of it should be military force. I can't quote the exact words, but that was the gist of it. That has been the doctrine of every president.
It became pretty dramatic in 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The pretext all those years was, well, we didn't want to do it, but we had to defend ourselves against this menace. Then it collapsed. How did the first Bush administration respond to the collapse of the Soviet Union?
It turns out that there was a national security strategy that was promulgated. There was a military spending program. What they said is almost ignored, probably because it's so interesting. What they said is that everything is going to go on exactly as before, with one change. Now it is not the Russian menace that we're defending against. We have to defend ourselves against what they call the technological sophistication of Third World powers. I don't know if they laughed hysterically when they wrote that, but that's what they said. What about the military system, what they call the defense industrial base? That's a euphemism for high-tech industry. It has to be exactly as before.
What about our intervention forces, primarily aimed toward the Middle East? They have to stay exactly the same. And they add an interesting phrase. They still have to be aimed toward the Middle East where the problems that might have called for military intervention "could not have been laid at the Kremlin's door." Nice phrase. That means, sorry, folks, we've been lying to you for 50 years, but now we can't lie anymore. The clouds have lifted so the problems could not have been laid at the Kremlin's door, but we still have to have those forces there because that's the world's major energy resource and we've got to control it.
It was around this time that Bush I uttered the words, "What we say goes."
That's right. It's interesting that all of this passed with almost no comment. Some did comment. For example, there was an interesting article by Dimitri Simes, a Russian specialist, in the New York Times (December 27, 1988) in which he said—this is right before the fall of the Berlin Wall—this is going to be great for the United States. We'll now be able to be much more free in our military actions everywhere. We'll be able to resist the pressure of the Third World countries that are oppressing us by all their demands for aid and so on.
Bush I's first action after the fall of the Berlin Wall, within weeks, was to invade Panama and probably kill a couple of thousand people. Nobody knows because we don't investigate our crimes. But the Costa Rican-based Central American Human Rights Agency investigated and I think they estimated 3,000 killed, mostly from bombing the El Chorrillo slums in Panama City. The Catholic bishops in Panama issued a pastoral letter condemning the bombing. Panama still observes a national day of mourning every December.
Elliott Abrams made an interesting comment about it. He said this is the first time that the United States has been able to—he probably didn't say invade—maybe liberate a country or something, without concern that the Russians might cause some trouble anywhere. Now, fortunately, the Russian deterrent is gone. It wasn't that we were deterring them. They were deterring us. Now the deterrent is gone, so we're much freer to act in accord with our long-standing commitments.
They had to reshape NATO. That was an interesting development, which is on the front pages today.
Because of Georgia and Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
What actually happened is that NATO had been presented as a U.S.-run military force that was going to defend the world against the terrible Russians. The Russians are gone. Now what's NATO? Gorbachev—I suspect naïvely, maybe he really believed it—suggested that the collapse of the Soviet Union should mean a period of partnership to seek peace. No victors, no vanquished. Let's just work together to set up a peaceful world. The Russians actually proposed a nuclear-weapons-free zone from the Arctic to the Black Sea as a step towards establishing peaceful relations.
Gorbachev made an astonishing concession. He agreed to let Germany be unified and to join NATO. He's allowing Germany to join a hostile military alliance. Look at the history of the century. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia, killing tens of millions of people, twice, and he's saying, okay, a unified Germany can join a hostile military alliance. It's an incredible concession.
There was a quid pro quo. The Bush administration promised that NATO would not expand to the east. Jack Matlock, who was Reagan and Bush's ambassador to Russia, has just recently written about this. He said that Secretary of State Baker told Foreign Secretary Shevardnadze that NATO would not extend one inch further. He claims those are the words he used. That was the agreement, that we were going to have cooperation and peace. Clinton came in. One of his first acts was to renege on the promise. Of course, the U.S. completely rejected the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free zone. The reason, pointed out by a former NATO planner, British analyst Michael McGwire, is that that would have interfered with extending NATO to the east, in violation of the firm commitments. Clinton expanded it to the east. The Clinton programs were highly triumphalist: no cooperation among equals, just forced peace of the victors. The programs were designed to essentially destroy the Russian economy, which they did, with the cooperation of the Russian leaders, who were pleased to become the counterpart to the Third World gangsters who run their countries and enrich themselves.
Explain "programs were designed." Is this the IMF and World Bank?
Plus the standard neoliberal programs, which cut back the Russian economy by some huge amount, maybe 50 percent, led to millions of deaths—the number of deaths probably wasn't all that different from Stalin's purges, there are various estimates—devastated the country, and enriched the leadership, which is what they wanted. That was their goal. We'll become rich while increasing the security threats by expanding NATO to the east.
All of this is described as if it were benign. Strobe Talbott, who was the highest official in the Clinton administration responsible for Eastern Europe and an honest, authentic liberal, recently described this on NPR, in which he said that it was a difficult decision, but we concluded that it was a benign thing to do because NATO is not a military alliance, it's just a friendly alliance. So, for example, if the Warsaw Pact had survived and they were bringing in Canada and Mexico, we would think that it's just a Quaker meeting, so what do we care.
Bush II came along and extended it. The so-called missile defense systems, which have nothing to do with missile defense—they're understood on both sides to be essentially first-strike weapons, not as they now stand but as they potentially might develop. They're a strategic threat to Russia. Strategic analysts on the U.S. side recognize that and have written about it. Step after step was taken to show the Russians: We're just going to kick you in the face. We won. Your problem. Now we're going to kick you in the face and take everything.
Finally, as Matlock (Reagan's and Bush's ambassador) pointed out, the Russians just decided they're not going to take any more and they put their foot down. That's what happened in Georgia.
I think I was in India when Putin's comments in Munich at a G8 summit got a lot of coverage. This is over a year ago where he said a certain power was behaving in a way that is very reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
Indians understand it. India is playing a mixed game. It's on the one hand trying to strengthen its relations with the United States, but on the other hand it's not England. It doesn't just follow blindly along like a camp follower. So it's also pursuing its own independent course. For example, India joined the nonaligned countries, of which it's a leading member, in endorsing Iran's right to enrich uranium to develop nuclear energy. That doesn't get reported here. But the majority of the countries of the world support Iran on this, not the United States. Here what you read is Iran is defying the world, the international community. But that's a funny definition of world.
To get back to U.S. domestic issues, you talk about institutional structures and how they frame and inhibit policies. So, realistically, whichever candidate is elected, can a president make a difference?
Oh, yes. Presidents make differences. In fact, over time there are systematic differences between Republicans and Democrats. So, for example, if you look over a long stretch, fairly consistently, when there is a Democratic president, there is a level of benefits for the majority of the population. Wages are a little better, benefits are a little better, for the large majority. When the Republicans are in office, it's the other way around. There are benefits, but for the super rich. The same is true of civil rights and other things. It's a consistent difference, even though they're within a narrow spectrum.
The same is true on international affairs. So for Reagan Russia was the evil empire, for Kennedy it was the monolithic and ruthless conspiracy, but the behavior was somewhat different—not necessarily in Kennedy's favor, I should say. I don't doubt that there would be some difference between an Obama and a McCain presidency. The McCain presidency you can't predict very well because he's a loose cannon. It could be pretty threatening.
What do you think of the lesser-of-two-evils argument?
It depends whether you care about human beings and their fate. If you care about human beings and their fate, you will support the lesser of the two evils, not mechanically, because there are other considerations. For example, there could be an argument for a protest vote if it were a step towards building a significant alternative to the choice between two factions of the business party, both of them to the right of the population on most issues. If there were such an alternative, there could be an argument either for not voting or for voting for the third alternative. But it's a delicate judgment. On the other hand, there is nothing immoral about voting for the lesser of two evils. In a powerful system like ours, small changes can lead to big consequences.
One of those institutional structures, particularly pertaining to elections, is the Electoral College, which seems by definition undemocratic. This is not talked about, which I find rather astonishing.
Basically, these technical changes wouldn't affect the core issue about American elections, which is that fundamentally they don't take place. The population is not misled about this. The press won't report it, but the polls these days show—and have for a long time—that about 80 percent of the population says the country is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, not for the benefit of the people. The latest polls I saw, by about 3 to 1, the population criticized the campaigns because they avoid issues and keep to personalities and marginal phenomena. The public is not misled, at least so the polls indicate.
Those are critical facts: that elections are extravaganzas, essentially run by the public relations industry with the goal of marginalizing issues and voters. As compared with that, the technical details, like do the voting machines work or the Electoral College, just don't amount to much. Even if you fixed up those technical details, the fundamental problem would remain.
Talk about the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The people who are going to pay for it are the American taxpayers. One of the major economic correspondents, Martin Wolf, who is a good economist, writes for the Financial Times and is a believer in markets, had a pretty strong column condemning it. He said, yes, it has to be done because of the disaster we're in, but it's outrageous. First the public is compelled to assume the risks of mortgage lending, then it's required to pay the costs when the whole system implodes. So probably there isn't any choice right now, given the nature of the disaster, but the whole system is an outrage. Why should the public have assumed the risks for financial managers, who are basically unregulated? Part of the dominant ideology of the last couple of decades is that you should dismantle government regulation. Fine. So you dismantle government regulation, you have catastrophe after catastrophe. Now the public is called in to pay the costs of that ideology.
Remember, the first of them, I think it was Fannie Mae, was established in the New Deal and it was a public entity, I think, until 1968. It was part of the government. It was regulated within the government. Then the other one, Freddie Mac, was set up and it became essentially privatized, but with a government guarantee, which simply tells the managers and investors and so on that they can play whatever game we want. The government is going to come in and save us, meaning the taxpayer will. That's pretty much what happened. That's Milton Friedman-style economics. It's called free market economics, with the nanny state there to make sure that the public takes the risks and pays the costs.
Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls it "socialized capitalism."
He does, but it's much too narrow, because that's true of just about all of capitalism. The whole high-tech economy runs that way. So, yes, this is an example. It's kind of interesting to watch the outrage about it, but the same outrage should be expressed about the rest of the advanced economy as well. The financialization is a particularly egregious case, but so are, say, the pharmaceutical industry or the electronics industry.
In the seven years since 2001 the United States has invaded and occupied two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, bombed Somalia, bombed and attacked Pakistan. Do you have any information on what the U.S. is doing militarily in Iran?
We have the information that's being leaked from government sources to very good journalists like Seymour Hersh and others at ABC News and elsewhere. The news that's being leaked or that some journalists in the field are picking up is that the United States is supporting or carrying out what we would call terrorist operations, if someone else were doing it, either in or against Iran.
Using proxies or U.S. forces directly?
Let me first say we don't know that this information is correct as it's coming from government sources. And anything that's coming from intelligence sources or unidentified diplomats and always should be taken with a grain of skepticism. They're not in the business of telling people the truth; they're in the business of telling people what they want them to believe. So it may be accurate or it may be psychological warfare against Iran. But I suspect it's accurate. There is good reason to suspect it on both the Iranian borders, Balochistan and the western borders. So it's very possible that the United States is indeed supporting terrorist groups, secessionist movements, trying to disrupt Iranian society. Maybe there are U.S. special forces or small groups inside, but mostly it appears, other anti-government factions.
Your estimate of the likelihood of a U.S. attack on Iran, before Bush leaves office or even after? Is Israel influencing U.S. policy on Iran and would Israel carry out a unilateral attack?
Israel has become a pretty crazy state, one which is hard to make judgments about. There was an incredible op-ed published in the New York Times by Benny Morris, one of Israel's leading historians, in which he said, essentially, that Iran should welcome an Israeli bombing because if Israel doesn't bomb them conventionally, it's going to wipe the country out with nuclear bombing. Therefore, if Israel bombs them, they should cheer. Try to translate that into an Iranian columnist talking about Israel. The world would be totally outraged. This passed quietly. He's making all kinds of claims. He says that we know Iran is producing nuclear weapons. Actually, you can read that in the Nation, too. We know that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.
This is established as a "fact."
That's just a fact. We refer to it. But in the Nation they still say we shouldn't bomb, we should talk. But are they developing nuclear weapons? Is the National Intelligence Estimate of the United States just a bunch of liars?
The December 2007 Intelligence estimate said that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
It said that they stopped it. In fact, it never showed that they had it. Maybe they are, maybe they're not. But the point is, it's become a "fact." And then the question is how to stop them. It couldn't be that they're trying to develop nuclear energy, even though there are good reasons why they should want to do so.
But would Israel bomb? I doubt that they would do it without U.S. authorization, but it's a little difficult to predict. There is a doctrine in Israel, which goes back to the 1950s, which is what they call the Samson complex. In the 1950s, very high-level officials were saying: If anyone crosses us, we will go crazy. We'll show 'em. We'll bring the temple walls down. So the idea of an Iranian threat against Israel is pretty fantastic, actually. If Iran were ever to seriously threaten Israel, the country would be wiped out.
Because of overwhelming Israeli military superiority?
The United States would wipe them out in five minutes. What they really mean by the Iranian threat is that Iran is supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. Hamas won a democratic election and the United States and Israel reacted instantly by crushing Palestinians for daring to vote the wrong way in a democratic election. Iran is undoubtedly supporting Hamas so that makes them "terrorists" that support a political organization that won a democratic election. Hezbollah is defending Lebanon from Israeli attack. That's considered a crime. How can you dare defend a country from a U.S.-backed Israeli attack? That's another terrorist act. It's not to say that Hezbollah and Hamas and Iran are nice guys. That's a separate question. But the idea of a threat has to be understood. The threat is that they are daring to stand up against the master and that is terrorism and cannot be tolerated. For that they might bomb.
As for the United States, I'm pretty skeptical, as I always have been, but it's conceivable. There are rumbles in the jingoist circles, neocon circles, that if Obama wins the election, the United States would have to bomb Iran during the lame-duck period because you couldn't trust Obama to be violent enough.
Even though he and McCain both say, when it comes to Iran, the proverbial "all options are on the table."
Yes, both of them insist on being in violation of international law and the UN Charter, which, if anybody cares, bars the threat or use of force. But both of them insist that they speak for an outlaw state, which is not bound by international law. Nevertheless, there is a difference. And it's possible that Cheney and some others might decide to go down in a blaze of glory. Let's bomb Iran and let the chips fall where they may.
I was interested in a letter that I saw in In These Times about the root cause of terrorism, kind of posing that question rhetorically. And the answer he gave was, "Terrorists are over here because we are over there."
Terrorists are here for one reason. Because we are carrying out terrorism over there. So John Negroponte, for example, is here. In fact, he was appointed anti-terrorism czar. He's one of the leading terrorists of the late 20th century. He was ambassador to Honduras in the late 1980s, coordinating Reagan's terrorist wars and also covering up for Honduran state terrorism, which was pretty atrocious, so that funds would keep flowing to maintain the terrorist wars that he was organizing. That's pretty serious terrorism. But that's not called terrorism, because we were doing it.
Juan Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles are happily dining right now in some restaurant in Miami, I suppose, two leading international terrorists. Not my judgment. It's the judgment of the FBI and the Justice Department, which accused Bosch of participation in 30 terrorist acts. George Bush I said: He's fine. We'll keep him here. Terrorists are here because we're protecting them while they carry out terrorist actions over there.
But what the letter writer was talking about is what you hear from people like Michael Scheuer, who was head of the CIA unit under Clinton that was tracking Osama bin Laden. No dove, incidentally. But what he points out, and it's accurate, is that the terrorists who we call terrorists, namely the ones attacking us, are essentially defending themselves from our actions.
You've cited Justice Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor of the Germans at Nuremberg. He said to the tribunal, "To pass these defendants," talking about the Nazis in the dock, "a poison chalice is to put it to our own lips as well." What was he talking about there?
He was saying, we have passed sentence on the Nazi war criminals, in fact, a death sentence, and there were principles that led us to do that. We are handing them a poison chalice in the sense that if we carry out similar acts, we must be subject to the same judgment. If not, the trial is a farce as it's just punishment by victors, not a step towards justice. Well, we can ask how have we dealt with that poison chalice? That's a question that can't be raised in the West because the answer is too incriminating.