Extending U.S. Dominance

Michael Albert Interviews Noam Chomsky

In place of our
usual editorial, this month we lead off with a Noam Chomsky interview regarding
the “war on terrorism.”

ALBERT: Why did the U.S. unleash war instead of pursuing the world court or UN
channels, or testing the Taliban’s offer to extradite bin Laden?

There is much debate in legal and other intellectual circles as to whether the
U.S. actions have been authorized by the ambiguous resolutions of the Security
Council. It is all a complete waste of time, in my opinion. The U.S. could
easily have obtained clear-cut Security Council authorization for anything it
wanted to do, not for attractive reasons: Russia is eager to be welcomed into
the “coalition against terror” so as to receive U.S. backing for its atrocious
state terrorism in Chechnya; China has similar concerns with regard to its
repression of “separatists” in Western China; England goes along reflexively and
France has a strong enough imperial legacy to raise no problems. More generally,
repressive and violent states throughout the world see a window of opportunity
to gain the support of the hegemonic power for their terrorist atrocities, and
are therefore eagerly rushing to join the “war against terror.”

But Washington
pointedly refused to obtain Security Council authorization, just as it refused
to pursue the possibility—perhaps real—of extradition of bin Laden and its

I think that’s

standable. If a
Mafia Don wants to collect protection money, he doesn’t ask for a Court order
first, even if he could obtain it. To do so would indicate that there is some
higher authority to which he should defer, and he does not want to entrench that
principle. Rather, it is importantto the U.S. to make it clear that there is no
higher authority, so that people will be properly intimidated. Much the same is
true in international affairs. There’s even a technical term for it: maintaining
“credibility.” That was the primary official reason given by Clinton, Blair, and
others for the bombing of Serbia. It’s been invoked in many other cases. One
task of intellectuals is to concoct more elevated motives, but the official
reasons are often quite candid and realistic. It’s important to make clear that
there is no higher authority.

The U.S.
leadership is committed to “unilateral use of military power” to defend its
interests, as the Clinton administration repeatedly insisted, echoing
predecessors, both in word and in practice. That’s a very natural stand among
those who have overwhelming power and feel—for the moment rightly—that they can
use it with impunity.

If undermining
international law is part of U.S. policy, what about maintaining U.S.
credibility as a violent international actor?

It seems to me
that undermining international law and maintaining “credibility” go hand in
hand. For similar reasons, in its major study of “post-Cold War deterrence,”
Clinton’s Strategic Command advised that “it hurts to portray ourselves as too
fully rational and cool-headed… That the U.S. may become irrational and
vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national
persona we project.” It is “beneficial” for our strategic posture if “some
elements may appear to be potentially “out of control’.” Actual policy conforms
reasonably well to prescriptions in internal documents, and it’s easy to trace
the story far back—not only in the U.S. of course; there are many precedents.
These are quite natural attributes of overwhelming power.

A “war on
terrorism” has great utility, like the Cold War did, for military spending,
domestic redistribution of wealth, justifying repressive legislation, and
rationalizing violence against dissidents around the world. Are we in part
bombing for the purpose of being able to enjoy the domestic and broader
international benefits of a war on terrorism?

That seems to me
a reasonable assessment. The Wall Street Journal reported accurately that
weapons programs have “become immune” to budget cuts. The U.S. was already
outspending the next 15 countries for “defense”—meaning “offense”—before
September 11, and that has since sharply increased. In a particularly crude and
vulgar fashion, the Administration has exploited the fear and anguish of the
population to ram through a wide array of harsh measures that it knows would
otherwise arouse popular opposition, ranging from cuts in corporate taxes, to
Stalinist-style negotiation authority (“trade enhancement authority,” formerly
called “fast track”), to proposals for military tribunals and other means to
strengthen the authority of the very powerful state to which “conservatives” are
deeply committed. That’s no surprise: we were all warning of this, very
explicitly, in the first days after September 11.

Again, it’s
natural. They would try to exploit an earthquake for the same purposes. Systems
of power want to extend their domination and control, by any means possible. In
class war or other confrontations between concentrated power and the general
population, one side pursues its goals relentlessly, using every device it
can—appeals to “patriotism,” hysterical diatribes against those who do not toe
the line, etc.—to reduce its opponent to passivity and submissiveness. Why
should we expect anything different? It’s true that within the current
Administration there is an element, now with considerable influence, that is
rather unusual in its quasi-fascistic commitments, but these are matters of
degree. Of course, there is every reason to resist these endeavors, and to
refuse to be intimidated and silenced, as always. And there are many
opportunities. The general population, as far as I can judge, is much less
uniformly jingoistic and submissive than one would conclude from elite
articulate opinion, which—again naturally, and with plenty of historical
precedents—wants to tame the “great beast,” to borrow Alexander Hamilton’s term
for the always-dangerous public.

What about
oil. Given your own arguments for the importance of oil to U.S. policy in the
region, why do you deny that oil is a central motivating factor in this war?

Oil is usually
somewhere in the background when actions are undertaken in that part of the
world. The Gulf region has by far the largest and most easily-exploitable
hydrocarbon reserves, as far as is known. Central Asia is potentially important
too, but not on that scale. However, these factors are persistent: they didn’t
change on September 11. As for a pipeline through Afghanistan, no doubt there is
some interest in it, but it is a distinctly secondary concern. Far more
significant is continued U.S. control over the primary sources of energy, with
the role of Iraq in abeyance for the moment, though sure to become very
significant; it is second only to Saudi Arabia in known reserves. And U.S.
relations with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have, if anything, been endangered
by the war in Afghanistan. Even the most pro-U.S. elements—e.g., Qatar, which
just hosted the World Trade Conference—have refused to support the U.S. war and
the general population appears to be quite hostile to it, visibly so in the
countries that are more free. For such reasons, it seems highly unlikely oil is
a central motivating factor.

From the
opposite direction, why has the U.S. been willing to pursue policies that may
actually endanger oil holdings and oil geopolitics, such as risking opening the
Saudi regime to increased internal dissent?

That’s an
important question. We don’t have internal documents, so can only speculate. But
it seems that the dominant forces in the administration are confident that their
overwhelming monopoly of violence will suffice to keep matters under control.
That is also suggested by the huge increase in the military budget, notably the
militarization of space programs that are disguised as “missile defense,” and
are described quite frankly and openly as intended to create an offensive
military capacity of unprecedented power that can be used to intimidate and
subdue the growing numbers of “have-nots” produced by the corporate
globalization process and to protect commercial interests and investments, much
as navies did in earlier eras. There’s no secret about any of this. If it is not
front-page news, as it should be, that is by choice of the doctrinal

Turning from
causes to effects, reports in past weeks have claimed that up to 7.5 million
Afghans would be at risk of starvation if emergency aid was disrupted. Were the
estimates exaggerations by Aid organizations or are we witnessing what may
become one of the worst human rights violations in the past 100 years, and what
can people do to intercede?

Desperately-needed aid has been disrupted or terminated for 3 months, at a
crucial time, right before the onset of the severe winter conditions that
seriously impede distribution of aid. The reports of conditions among
refugees—mostly in the British and other foreign press—are appalling. The actual
scale we do not know and, if history is any guide, will never know. There is an
important operative principle held by those in power in these matters:

(1) The crimes of
official enemies must be investigated with laser-like intensity, on the (very
reasonable) principle that one counts not only those who were literally murdered
but also the typically far greater numbers who die as a consequence of policy

(2) That practice
must be scrupulously avoided in the case of our own crimes and responsibility.

The application
of that guiding principle is very easily documented, right to the present
moment, sometimes in very dramatic ways. To mention only one of innumerable
examples, if 80,000 Kosovars who had been violently driven from their homes were
rotting in concentration camps in Serbia, we’d know about it—in fact, we would
be at war. But it’s not a problem when they are East Timorese in Indonesian
camps, because the responsibility traces right back to Washington and London.
Kosovo was teeming with forensic investigators seeking to unearth any trace of
evidence for crimes of the official enemye. Despite the pleas of the UN, aid
organizations, Timorese, and others, forensic investigators were largely
withheld from East Timor after simultaneous crimes, which were far more serious
by any rational or moral standard. It’s depressingly easy to provide additional

We should also
bear in mind that people do not die of starvation and exposure instantly; it’s
not like having your brains blown out. They can survive for a long time on roots
and grass. Their malnourished children may die of disease, but to identify the
exact cause is not easy. For such reasons, it is a simple matter to disregard
one’s own crimes, and serious efforts have to be made to highlight those of
official enemies.

What can people
do? The primary concern should be to try to put maximal pressure on the
government to expedite—in fact, allow—massive humanitarian assistance, reaching
to as much of the endangered population as possible. The secondary concern
should be to try to understand and expose the background factors that have led
to this situation, if only to reduce the likelihood that it will unfold again.

Having largely
demolished what was left of Afghanistan and having installed the Northern
Alliance who everyone previously deemed barbaric, why is the U.S. still
obstructing the flow of food to starving Afghan citizens?

I doubt that it
is literally “obstructing” the flow. Rather, the matter is probably considered
insignificant. I should say that of everything I’ve said and written about these
matters in the past few months, there is one extemporaneous comment in informal
remarks that I think was misstated and that I’d like to correct: that the U.S.
was “trying” to create a humanitarian catastrophe. To say that is to attribute
far too much humanity to the planners and the chorus that sings their praises.
If I’m walking down the street and step on an ant, it would be incorrect to say
that I “tried” to kill it; rather, I took that possibility to be so
insignificant that I paid no attention to it. The same holds in this case. It
simply doesn’t matter, particularly when planners can have reasonable confidence
that the consequences will not be reported or investigated seriously, if the
past is any guide.

Is an assault
on Iraq likely and/or other targets that continue the appearance of war more
likely: Somalia, Sudan, etc.

The successful
resort to overwhelming power against defenseless enemies has a bad effect on the
character; it’s all too easy to find historical precedents. Military success
was, in my opinion, predictable, for reasons we discussed months ago and are in
print; what was surprising to me was how long the Taliban held out under
incredible bombardment. It’s been interesting, and ominous, to see how the
success of the resort to overwhelming force has been put forth as a
justification for it, again hardly for the first time.

Within the
Administration, and among elite opinion, there are doubtless those who are eager
to exploit the opportunity to attack others, as long as they are defenseless and
the attack can be carried out from a distance and with impunity. European
governments have been trying hard to restrain these impulses, and much of the
world (rightly) fears them, greatly. What will happen depends in large measure
on the domestic climate, and for those who oppose such further exercises of
violence, the task is action, not speculation—which at best is pretty idle,
because of the complexity of the factors involved.

As September
11 has aided the agendas of Bush and Company, haven’t the recent terror attacks
in Israel aided the Israeli government in escalating attacks on the
Palestinians? How do you explain the terror bombings? What can people elsewhere
do to try to curtail and reverse the horrible trajectory unfolding in Israel?

All over the
world, repressive states—which comes close to meaning “states”—have recognized
that they too have a window of opportunity to enhance repression and terror
under the rubric of “war against terror.” Israel is no exception, as we have
been observing since September 11. The terrorism of the subject population has
its roots in their desperation, but explanation is not justification. Apart from
being outrageous, these terrorist acts are also a gift to the most harsh and
brutal elements in the occupying power and its U.S. backers. You’re right about
the horrible trajectory, which is deteriorating to tribal warfare with
devastating effects for both societies. That said, we must not, of course,
overlook the vast asymmetry in power and conditions. We are not observing the
35th year of a harsh and brutal Palestinian occupation of Israel, with the
decisive support of the U.S.

There is a lot
that we can do. When we read about political assassinations and murder of
civilians by Israeli helicopters, we should understand, as the victims do, that
these are U.S. helicopters with Israeli pilots, provided in the full knowledge
that that is how they are going to be used. The point generalizes, and extends
to the diplomatic arena as well. To give one example, consider the Fourth Geneva
Convention, established immediately after World War II to formally criminalize
Nazi atrocities. The U.S. is among the High Contracting Parties that are bound
by solemn treaty obligations to enforce the Convention. Apart from the U.S. and
Israel, the world has repeatedly insisted that the Convention applies to the
territories that Israel occupies with U.S. support. The same conclusion has been
forcefully enunciated by the ICRC, which has the responsibility to oversee
application of the Convention. The government of Switzerland is the responsible
state authority. In that capacity, it called a conference on the matter for
December 5. The conference was boycotted by the U.S. and Israel, and—more
surprisingly—Australia, under U.S. pressure, according to the Australian press.
The report on the conference in the London Financial Times opened
by stating that “The European Union’s 15 member states were among 114 countries
that yesterday agreed an unprecedented declaration reaffirming the illegality of
Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and calling on Israel to respect
international humanitarian law.” A database search the next day found no reports
in the U.S. media (thanks to David Peterson). Occasionally one finds an item
reporting that “Palestinians claim” that the Conventions apply to the occupied
territories. The true facts can only be unearthed by departing from mainstream
sources. That again points to a large variety of actions that we can and should

In such
situations, it is typically the case that each side focuses on the crimes of the
other, and the charges are often correct. What outsiders can try to do, when it
is possible, is to urge each side to recognize the justice of the contentions of
its opponent; that is a preliminary condition for reversing the escalating cycle
of violence. Of course, there is not the slightest symmetry in this case, and we
are not outsiders, given the crucial and decisive U.S. role in implementing the
crimes that were once again condemned by the unreported December 5 declaration.

There has been
a massive media celebration of the videotape of bin Laden discussing September
11. Commentators assert that this tape somehow legitimates the bombing of
Afghanistan, as if discovering that a vigilante lynching that “collaterally”
also took out huge communities of people is somehow legitimated by discovering
that the prime target was guilty more or less as charged. Others argue the
videotape is a fabrication.

I presume that
the tape is authentic. It adds some strength to the prima facie case that bin
Laden’s network was directly involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks, but
leaves open the (not very important) question whether he was personally
directing them.

According to what
has been publicly released, on Nov. 9, two months after the attacks, bin Laden
once again expressed his strong approval for the atrocities, and boasted to an
unidentified Saudi sheik that he had foreknowledge of the attacks and was
responsible for organizing them. We do not know whether this boast is accurate,
any more than we know whether to credit Brzezinski’s boast about his role in
drawing the Russians into an “Afghan trap” in December 1979, with all the
terrible consequences that ensued for the people of Afghanistan and the victims
of the terror networks established by the CIA and its associates, including
those of Sept. 11. Brzezinski’s boast would not suffice to sentence him for the
crimes for which he proudly claims responsibility. Maybe such boasts are
accurate, maybe not. In both cases they tell us something about the people who
make them, but evidence is required to settle the question of accuracy.

Bin Laden also
says that “we”—presumably meaning he himself—revealed the operation to the
perpetrators “just before they boarded the planes.” It is unclear how he could
have done that from a cave in Afghanistan, and the evident implausibility of
this claim raises some questions about the accuracy of the boasts in general.
But it doesn’t really matter very much. If the U.S. feels it has a case against
him, it should by all means obtain authorization—as it easily could—to capture
him and place him before some credible court. That could be the International
Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, though these are probably
excluded because the U.S. rejects their jurisdiction. So perhaps some special
tribunal could be set up to deal with this case. How a serious court might treat
this evidence is another matter. Whatever the answer, it has no bearing
whatsoever on the decision to attack Afghanistan in order to seek revenge
against bin Laden and his associates, without regard to the consequences for the
population, which were expected to be grim. To evaluate that decision, we
consider the evidence available and the goals proclaimed at that time; that’s
simply a matter of logic.

It’s also worth
recalling that the goal of overthrowing the Taliban regime by violence was an
afterthought, brought up officially in late October, if I recall correctly. In
the same connection, I know of no record of any discussion of the stand of
leading sectors among anti-Taliban Afghanis, very prominently in the relevant
period and indeed considerably later, including their declared opposition to the
bombing and pleas that instead of attacking their country, the U.S. should
provide support for their efforts to undermine the despised regime from within,
which they urged was feasible and in fact showing progress.

In brief, the
newly-discovered evidence, however one evaluates it, leaves all significant
questions as they were.

That aside,
should bin Laden’s reaction be a surprise to the West? After all, we know
perfectly well that acclaim for huge atrocities and boasts about responsibility
for them are quite standard. Consider, for example, the unconstrained euphoria
over the 1965 massacres in Indonesia, described with reasonable accuracy in
leading journals along with praise for the “Indonesian moderates” who were
responsible for the “staggering mass slaughter” (NY Times) and “boiling
bloodbath” (Time), and for the leaders in Washington who wisely
downplayed their crucial role in expediting the crimes that the CIA compared to
those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—though they did take credit for them, quite
explicitly and publicly, including proud congressional testimony. Is murdering
perhaps a million Indonesians, mostly landless peasants, a lesser crime than
September 11? Or consider the no less euphoric response to the victory of the
U.S. candidate in the 1990 elections in Nicaragua, conducted under the very
clear threat that any other choice would lead to continuation of the economic
strangulation and terrorist war that had devastated the country, with grim
consequences that were again described fairly accurately, and with unconstrained
approval, as we were “United in Joy” over this “Victory for U.S. Fair Play” (NY
). The story was just replayed, in November of this year, when we were
once again “United in Joy” over the victory of the U.S. candidate in Nicaragua,
after explicit warnings of dire consequences if voters made the wrong choice in
the country that has now declined to second place in the poverty rankings for
the hemisphere, after Haiti. By no means the only examples.

So why should we
feign surprise that a gangster in a cave in Afghanistan reacts to crimes much in
the manner of Western elites, and boasts of his responsibility for them? When
such questions as these are addressed honestly, it will be possible to take the
“media celebration” seriously; not before.

Many leftists
have been immobilized, thinking this is a just war, or that there is no hope to
impact outcomes. Obviously you have not succumbed to such views. You keep
working to avert catastrophe and to reverse the injustices. Is there anything
you would like to say to try to clear the air of these two confusions or any

I honestly have
nothing to say beyond the obvious. To my knowledge, no one has presented a case
for “just war” that does not have extremely serious defects. To be taken
seriously, any such argument must be based on principles that we are willing—in
fact, insistent—should be applied to our own actions. That is simply a moral
truism. I can find no discussion that even approaches this minimal standard. As
always, each person has the choice of reflexively succumbing to the demands of
the powerful, or of thinking through the circumstances carefully and deciding
whether that is the proper stance. If the conclusion is that it is not the
proper stance—it rarely is—then we have many options available to us, as we all
know perfectly well.                      Z