Chomsky On World Ownership
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.
By Michael Shank
Editor: John Feffer
Policy In Focus" -- -
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
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
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
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
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
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
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’s Institute for
Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
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