A Land of Wreck and Ruin

Although mainstream media refuses him airtime, the New York Times states Chomsky remains one of the most "influential" intellectuals alive, constantly sought by students, universities, activists, academic symposiums, and world leaders.

ALI: In 1969 you published American Power and the New Mandarins, a critique of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and South East Asia. Many have drawn parallels between the current war in Iraq and our military actions in Vietnam. Are these parallels presumptuous or are there significant similarities?

CHOMSKY: The primary similarities have to do with how the wars are viewed in the U.S. (and the West generally). Apart from the margins, opinions range from "hawk" to "dove." In both cases, the hawks say that with more commitment the U.S. could win. The doves, in both cases, take the stand expressed by Barack Obama about Iraq—a "strategic blunder," too costly to ourselves—or by the prominent liberal historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger. In 1966, when Vietnam was coming to be seen as a venture that was too costly for the U.S. Schlesinger explained that "we all pray" that the hawks will be right and that more troops (the "surge" of the day) will bring victory. If they prove to be right, we may all be praising "the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government" in winning victory while leaving "the tragic country gutted and devastated by bombs, burned by napalm, turned into a wasteland by chemical defoliation, a land of ruin and wreck," with its "political and institutional fabric" pulverized. But escalation probably will not succeed, he felt, and will prove to be too costly for ourselves, so perhaps strategy should be rethought. The position of the doves on Iraq is rather similar. If, for example, General Petraeus could achieve anything like what Putin achieved in Chechnya, he would be elevated to the Pantheon, to applause from liberal doves.

It is next to inconceivable, within the mainstream of Western intellectual culture, that one might give a principled critique of the war—that is, the kind of critique we give reflexively, and properly, when some enemy state commits aggression: for example, when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan or Chechnya. We do not criticize those actions on grounds of cost, error, blunder, or quagmire. Rather, we condemn the actions as horrendous war crimes, whether they succeed or not.

The Vietnam and Iraq Wars, however, are quite different in motivation and character. Vietnam was of no particular value to the U.S., even though President Eisenhower tried to arouse some support for his undermining of the Geneva peace agreements. Iraq is entirely different. It has perhaps the second largest oil reserves in the world, which are, furthermore, very cheap to extract: no permafrost or tar sands. And it is right at the center of the world’s greatest resources of easily exploitable energy.

In the case of Vietnam, the concern was that successful independent development there might be a "virus" that would "spread contagion" to others, to borrow Henry Kissinger’s rhetoric with regard to democratic socialism in Chile. That has been a primary motive for military intervention and subversion throughout the world since World War II—the rational version of the "domino theory." The "contagion" is that others suffering similar burdens might see successful independent development as a model and might try to pursue the same path, and the system of domination might erode. Even the weakest and tiniest country therefore poses extreme threats to order.

International affairs are much like the Mafia. The Godfather cannot tolerate disobedience even from a small storekeeper who fails to pay protection money or "the rot might spread and spoil the barrel" in the terminology of U.S. planners—the rot of successful independent development out of U.S. control. Vietnam, it was feared, might infect surrounding countries, even Indonesia, with its rich resources. Japan—what the prominent Asia historian John Dower called "the superdomino"—might "accommodate" to an independent East Asia, becoming its industrial and technological center, effectively recreating the "New Order" that fascist Japan had sought to construct by force during World War II.

When there is fear that a virus may spread contagion, the steps are to destroy the virus and inoculate those who might be infected. That was done. Vietnam was virtually destroyed (along with Indochina altogether, as the U.S. expanded its war to Laos and Cambodia). By the late 1960s it was clear that it would never be a model for anyone and would be lucky to survive. The region was "inoculated" by imposition of murderous tyrants—Suharto in Indonesia, Marcos in the Philippines, and so on. Suharto’s military coup in 1965 was particularly important. It was described fairly accurately by the New York Times as a "staggering mass slaughter"—but also as "a gleam of light in Asia"—as Suharto’s military forces led the massacre of perhaps a million people, mostly landless peasants; destroyed the only mass popular political party in the country, a party of the poor, as it was described by Australian Indonesia specialist Harold Crouch; and opened the rich resources of the country to exploitation by Western corporations. Euphoria was unconstrained. In retrospect, Kennedy-Johnson National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy reflected that the U.S. should have called off the Vietnam War in 1965, after this grand victory for freedom and justice.

Though the U.S. achieved a significant victory in Indochina, it did not achieve its most far-reaching objective of installing a client state. For the imperial consciousness, the Vietnam War was therefore a "disaster."

Iraq, as noted, is entirely different. It is far too valuable to destroy. It is imperative that it remain under U.S. control, if at all possible, with an obedient client state that will house major U.S. military bases. That these were the primary goals of the invasion was always quite obvious, but there is no longer any need to debate it. These plans were made explicit by the Bush administration in its November 2007 declaration and subsequent pronouncements, along with the rather brazen demand that U.S. corporations must have privileged access to Iraq’s enormous oil reserves.

Last year, a U.S. intelligence report concluded that Iran had stopped a nuclear weapons program four years ago. Iran maintains it never advanced a program in the first place. Regardless, President Bush, Israel President Olmert, and ranking officials in Washington claim Iran remains a "dangerous threat" and is still in pursuit of "nuclear weapons." How tenable are both parties’ claims?

The claims should be evaluated by the International Atomic Energy Agency. I have no special knowledge, of course. It would hardly be surprising if it were discovered that Iran has some kind of nuclear weapons program, perhaps contingency plans. The reasons were explained by one of Israel’s leading military historians, Martin van Creveld. He argued that Iran would be "crazy" if it were not developing a nuclear deterrent in its current predicament—with hostile forces of a violent superpower on two borders and a hostile regional power (Israel) brandishing hundreds of nuclear weapons, both calling loudly for "regime change." Nevertheless, the available evidence indicates that if Iran had such a program, they stopped pursuing it several years ago.

From the U.S. perspective, Iran committed a grave crime in 1979. As we know, in 1953 the U.S. and UK dismantled Iranian parliamentary democracy and installed a brutal tyrant, the Shah, who remained a pillar of U.S. control over the energy-rich region until 1979, when he was overthrown by a popular uprising.

Iranian independence is no slight problem. It threatens U.S. domination of one of the most valuable prizes in the world, Middle East oil. Accordingly, from 1979 the U.S. has been bitterly hostile to Iran. Washington backed Saddam Hussein’s vicious and murderous assault against Iran, and after the war continued to provide strong support to its friend Saddam, even inviting Iraqi nuclear engineers for advanced training in nuclear weapons development in 1989. It then turned to severe sanctions against Iran, along with regular threats to attack Iran and overthrow the government.

That continues to the present. As I write (June 15, 2008), Reuters reports, "Analysts believe that offering Iran security guarantees, an idea floated by Russia, could help end the deadlock, seeing such guarantees as Iran’s fundamental goal given the Bush administration’s ‘regime change’ policy toward it. But the United States last month said major powers had no plans to make such security pledges to Tehran."

In simple words, the U.S. insists on maintaining its stance as an outlaw state, dismissing core principles of international law, including the UN Charter, which outlaws the threat or use of force in international affairs. Bush is joined by both 2008 presidential candidates and by elite opinion in the U.S. and Europe—but not by the American public, which by a large majority favors diplomacy and opposes the threat of force. But public opinion is largely irrelevant to policy formation.

The political class, across the spectrum with rare exceptions, is committed to maintaining U.S. control over the world’s major energy resources and to punishing "successful defiance." Therefore, the U.S. has tried very hard to mobilize an anti-Iranian alliance among the Sunni states of the region, though without much success. Bush’s two trips to Saudi Arabia in early 2008 were complete failures in this regard. The Saudi press, normally very polite to important visitors, condemned the policies proposed to them by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as "not diplomacy in search of peace, but madness in search of war." The Gulf monarchies are no friends of Iran, but appear to prefer accommodation to confrontation, a bitter blow to U.S. policies. Washington is facing similar problems in Iraq and Lebanon. In the background lies a much broader concern that the energy producers of the region may turn to the East, perhaps even following Iran to establish links to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China, Russia, and the Central Asian states, with India, Pakistan, and Iran as observers, a status denied to Washington.

How will the rise in Sunni-Shia conflict, specifically in Iraq, reverberate throughout the Middle East?

According to the studies of popular opinion in Iraq by the Pentagon, sectarian conflict in Iraq was catalyzed by U.S. aggression. To quote the Washington Post summary of the Pentagon findings released in December 2007, "Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation." The Iraq invasion has increased terrorism, far more than was anticipated—seven-fold, according to an analysis of quasi-official figures by terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank. What happens next depends in no slight measure on what U.S. policies will be, though there are many internal factors in this complex region.

Does the advent of the Internet—blogs, YouTube, webzines, and the like—counter what you have called the "manufacturing of consent?"

If I were restricted to a single newspaper, I would choose the New York Times, even though I have written hundreds of pages documenting in detail its misrepresentations, distortions, and crucial omissions in the service of power—selecting the NYT for close examination specifically because of its importance and unmatched resources. One can learn a great deal by careful and critical reading of the mainstream media, though other sources are very valuable. The Internet provides access to an extraordinary range of information, opinion, and interpretation. But as with any source, it is useful to the extent that it is used with discrimination and insight. The best biologists are not the ones who have read the most technical papers in their field, but the ones who have a framework of understanding that enables them to select what is likely to be significant, even in a paper that is otherwise of little value. The same kind of discernment is necessary in the study of human affairs.

How do you respond to critics who insist your painting of U.S. foreign policy is simplistic and cynical? Is the U.S. truly an evil empire?

The kind of criticisms to which you refer are leveled against dissidents in just about every society in history and are therefore rightly ignored. If critics have arguments and evidence, I am glad to look at them, in this domain or others. When they simply produce tantrums of the kind to which you refer, we can dismiss the performances as another illustration of what the founder of realist international relations theory, Hans Morgenthau, called "our conformist subservience to those in power," referring to American (in fact Western) intellectuals, always with a margin of exceptions. I do not respond to the charge that I describe the U.S. as an "evil empire" because the charge is an infantile fabrication by desperate apologists for state power. In fact, I repeatedly stress that the U.S. is very much like other systems of power. True, that stance is intolerable to nationalists, who insist on U.S. "exceptionalism"—as does the political leadership and the intellectual classes in other powerful states, past and present, quite commonly.


Wajahat Ali, a Pakistani Muslim American, is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and attorney. His work The Domestic Crusaders is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America.