An Interview with Noam Chomsky: Iraq, the Media, History

Roundup: Historians' Take

From an interview with Noam Chomsky conducted by Kirk W. Johnson, editor, American Amnesia (Feb. 2004):

AA: To ask a question I put to [Howard] Zinn – What do you feel about the role of citing historical events in the media these days?

NC: If you’re down at a bar in the slums, and you say something that people don’t like, they’ll punch you or shriek four-letter words. If you’re in a faculty club or an editorial office, where you’re more polite – there’s a collection of phrases that can be used which are the intellectual equivalent of four-letter words and tantrums. One of them is “conspiracy theory,” another is “Marxist,” another is “moral equivalence” – it’s a series of totally meaningless curse words, in effect, which are used by people who know that they can’t answer arguments, and that they can’t deal with evidence. But when they want to shut you up, they have do approximately the same as screaming four-letter words. What does it mean to say it’s a “conspiracy theory” to say that top U.S. planners both developed plans which can be seen in the documentary record, and carried out, which can be seen in the historical record. It’s not a conspiracy theory.

AA: I’m interested in your response to those like Niall Ferguson – who write about the values of imperialism, such as increased education levels, GDP, etc.

NC: Niall Ferguson doesn’t bother telling you that in the 18th century, India was one of the commercial and industrial centers of the world. England was a kind of a backwater – it had much greater force, but not commercial or industrial advantages. It was able to forcefully impose on India what was now called the neo-liberal program of free-market, tariffs, etc. etc. Meanwhile England itself, which was a powerful state, raised high protectionist barriers to protect itself from superior Indian goods...textiles, ships, and others. There was massive state intervention in the economy, the United States later did the same thing – stole Indian technology. Over the next 200 years, that tyranny led to an impoverished, agricultural country, while England became a rich, industrial society. The mortality rate in India after 200 years of British rule was about the same as when they took over. There were railroads, but they were run from the outside – they were there for extraction of resources. Meanwhile, tens, if not hundreds of millions of people died in famines - the famines were horrendous. So that’s the history of the British in India. After India won its independence, it began a path of development, picked up again where it was two centuries ago. It’s true that while under the imperial system, some of the better features of Western society leaked through, but India had a rich literature and culture long before England came in. Basically it was a murderous, destructive, several centuries of history, which India then got out of. Then it began to develop where there were no more famines, and the infant mortality rate began to improve enormously. There are still a lot of problems, many traceable back to the English days. That’s the history of English imperialism.

But what about the United States? Take the idea that the U.S. is going to bring a democracy to the Middle East. Now let’s take a look at the place where the U.S. has had a maximal influence for a century...the Carribean and the Central America. No competition. Totally under U.S. domination. And it’s pretty much the same people who are running it now, mostly drawn from the Reagan administration, who also came in calling for enhancing democracy. It’s a disaster! A total disaster! The massacres, the destruction…Nicaragua, one of their main achievements, now about 60% of the children under two are suffering from severe malnutrition which main cause partial brain damage. Now that wasn’t happening when the guys in Washington launched their terrorist war in the early '80s. Of course they’ve got formal democracies – you can push a button and vote. After the popular organizations were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Now you can push buttons and vote. But the more honest members of the Reagan administration and scholarly analysts agree and say that the U.S. was only willing to accept what they call “top-down” forms of which traditional elites remain in power. Which is precisely what they’re trying to in Iraq.

In order to create democracy in Iraq, first of all we have to prevent elections! The U.S. is desperately seeking to avoid elections, because they might bring in Iraqis we can’t control. The U.S. has imposed an economic regime rather like the one the British forced on India. The entire economy must be available to be purchased and run by Western, mainly American corporations. For the moment, they’ve left out the oil, but that will come. They’ve imposed a tax regime which is a dream of the Bush administration – the top 15% tax – again something which no sovereign country would accept. The idea is to make sure that the economy is taken over by Western corporations. Meanwhile the U.S. is building the biggest embassy in the world, 3000 people, for Baghdad...because they’re going to hand over sovereignty? With the biggest embassy in the world? It’s ensuring that the American troops can stay there as long as they want. What they want to create is exactly the kind of democracy that they’ve created elsewhere. Just look around the rest of the Middle East. Most of the governments that we most strongly support are brutal, vicious dictatorships. No elections, with much autocratic rule. There has been one elected leader in the Middle East, one, who was elected in a reasonably fair, supervised election...namely Yassir Arafat. So how do the great "democrats" like Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld treat him? Lock him up in a compound so that he can be battered by U.S.-provided arms to their local client under military occupation. They force him out...they declare his administration irrelevant while they force in somebody who they think will be more pliable.

If you’re an American intellectual and you’re on television, you can say that you’re bringing “democracy.” But if you’re an ordinary person whose brain is functioning, you can see what they’re trying to do is destroy democracy. You know, it’d be very nice if Iran conquered the world, and the mullahs had a miraculous conversion and decided they were in favor of democracy and justice, and brought democracy and justice to the world...that would be lovely. But what happens? Do we pay any attention to it? Do we waste one second talking about the possibility? No. We look at their record, we look at who they are, we look at what they’re doing. And then we ask what are the chances? And the chance is zero. But look at our leaders...we’re supposed to treat our leaders with reverential awe - but we can also be reasonable. What are the chances of their even wanting to bring democracy to the Middle East? They’ve never done it anywhere else, and they’re trying to do it now? You see any evidence for it? The only evidence is that they say so. Stalin said he was bringing democracy to Eastern Europe. Do we praise him with great awe? No! We dismiss him.

AA: So what then, would you suggest be done in Iraq? How can the ideal results be achieved?

NC: By now there’s no ideal, because it’s a total wreck. A monstrosity. But the guiding line probably should be to, as quickly as possible, get the U.S. forces out of there. Both the military forces and the viceroy, the C.P.A. civilian forces, hand it over to the most credible international authority as possible. The most credible one happens to be the U.N., whatever you think about it – give them the responsibility. Which is apparently what Iraqis want, and in fact the majority of the United States wants. For security, probably the best idea that the Iraqis would want, is an international Arab army. The main point is that these decisions are not for us to decide. Anything we decide is illegitimate. You know, we can have a polite conversation and say “I’d like this,” or “I’d like that,” but that’s of no significance. This is for Iraqis to decide. So the best principle to be followed is to hand over control to the Iraqis as expeditiously and quickly as possible. If they decide that they would like to have their economy taken over by Western corporations, and they would like to have the biggest U.S. embassy in the world sitting there in Baghdad, and they would like to have U.S. military forces there as long as Washington wants...if they decide that - ok, I don’t like it but I won’t object. But they’re not going to decide that, and you know it.

AA: Howard Zinn said that the WMD issue would lead to a major loss of credibility for Bush, that he wouldn’t be able to defuse it. Do you agree?

NC: I don’t think so. I think that underestimates the power of the U.S. propaganda system. The most significant aspect of the failure to find WMD is that it has lower the bars for aggression. If you look back to the original security strategy that was used as the justification for the invasion, which claims that the U.S. has the right to invade another country if that country means of destruction that could harm us – suggesting WMD – the effect of not finding them has been to lower the bars for aggression. If you read Colin Powell or Condaleeza Rice or the rest of them today, they say “Well, it was justified because Iraq had the capability and intent of developing WMD, so that means we’re entitled to attack them.” Well just think that through – every country in the world practically has the capability! Who has the intent? Right now – probably everybody if they can do it. So that means every country in the world is subject to U.S. invasion and attack if Washington decides. That’s the position that Colin Powell and Rice and Rumsfeld are maintaining. There’s never been anything like that in history.

AA: Do you think that the difficulties of Iraq have taught them otherwise, though? Or is the national security strategy here to stay?

NC: First of all, the security strategy has always been there – it goes way back. What made it so striking in the Bush case, and the reason it aroused furor and hatred and antagonism, is because it was so brazen. Usually it’s just kept quiet, and you use it if you want to. But you don’t hit people over the head and measly illustrate it by carrying out an invasion. That’s what frightened people about American foreign policy. But the strategy has always been there. The aggressive aspect of it has been tamed by the remarkable failures in Iraq...I mean this should have been the simplest military occupation in history. But they completely blew it – and turned what ought to have been a simple operation into a catastrophe. And that’s out of incompetence and arrogance and stupidity. And that undoubtedly is making them pull back. If it had succeeded the way you would have expected it would with minimal competence, then they’d probably be invading somebody else right now. They can’t though – they’re in too much trouble. They’re in deep enough trouble trying to control this one.

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