Professor of Linguistics at MIT and author of many best-selling political works, most recently Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky has been renown for his incisive and hard-hitting criticism of U.S. foreign policy for decades. Recently, M. Junaid Alam, co-editor of the new leftist youth journal Left Hook, was able to interview Professor Chomsky on the nature of the Bush administration, the American left’s strategy in upcoming elections, domestic and foreign consequences of continued occupation of Iraq, and the basis for US-Israeli relations.
Alam: Professor Chomsky, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
In the aftermath of September 11, the Bush administration has pursued an aggressively militaristic foreign policy marked by religious rhetoric and ambitiously imperial declarations. Is the social and ideological base and agenda of this administration uniquely rooted in the Christian Right, neoconservatism, and the less scrupulous sections of the corporate elite, or is this simply a more crass reflection of a prevailing consensus among an American elite emboldened by the emergence of America as the world’s sole hegemon?
Chomsky: We do not have internal documents, so what we say about the details of planning and its motivation is necessarily speculative. However, I am inclined to believe that the Christian Right influence is not very great. It is possible that Bush is telling the truth when he rants about his born-again experiences and how he is driving Evil from the world, but I suspect he is just playing the role for which he is being trained by his handlers, and that the religious fanaticism is mostly part of a plan to throw a little red meat to a substantial constituency. The US is one of the most extreme religious fundamentalist societies in the world. It is hard to believe that the actual planners – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Powell, etc. – take any of this seriously. As for “neoconservatism,” it is not clear what the term is supposed to mean. In practice it is the program of radical statist reactionaries, who believe that the US should rule the world, by force if necessary, in the interests of the narrow sectors of concentrated private power and wealth that they represent, and that the powerful state they forge should serve those interests, not the interests of the public, who are to be frightened into submission while the progressive legislation and achievements of popular struggle of the past century are dismantled, along with the democratic culture that sustained them. Within elite sectors, there is a great deal of concern over their brazen arrogance, remarkable incompetence, and willingness to increase serious threats to the country and to transfer a huge burden to coming generations for short-term gain. Their war in Iraq, for example, was strongly opposed by leading sectors of the foreign policy elite, and perhaps even more strikingly, the corporate world. But the same sectors will continue to support the Bush circles, strongly. It is using state power to lavish huge gifts on them, and they basically share the underlying premises even if they are concerned about the practice and the irrationality of the actors, and the dangers they pose.
Alam: Many leftists and liberals, including NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman and ZNet’s Michael Albert, believe that Bush represents a radical departure from previous administrations, purportedly in its ambitions to roll back much of the progressive work forged through social struggle since the New Deal, including social security, civil liberties, and welfare. The majority sentiment on the left is that, subsequently, anyone is preferable to Bush and therefore rallying behind the Democrats is a necessity.
Some, however, disagree. Lance Selfa of the International Socialist Review recently argued that the so-called neoconservative clique has its roots in the right wing of the Democratic Party of the early 1970s and that the Democratic candidates differ only in rhetoric and not goals, citing Dean’s refusal to rule out use of preemptive force on Iran or North Korea and his endorsement of the Star Wars program. Additionally, in the recent Avocado Declaration, Peter Camejo of the Green Party wrote that the Democrats are a party of “defeatism” whose message is “nothing is possible but what exists.” What is your own take on these arguments and the situation surrounding upcoming elections?
Chomsky: The arguments are not inconsistent. Both are basically correct, in my opinion. The political spectrum is narrow. Elections are essentially bought, and the democratic culture is severely eroded. Furthermore, the population is aware of it, by and large, but many feel helpless. It is also a very frightened country, particularly men, polls indicate. That has been true for a long time, and those fears are exploited by unscrupulous leaders to divert the attention of the people they are kicking in the face, not to speak of what they are doing to coming generations. Nevertheless, though differences are not very large, they do exist. The current incumbents may do severe, perhaps irreparable, damage if given another hold on power – a very slim hold, but one they will use to achieve very ugly and dangerous ends. In a very powerful state, small differences may translate into very substantial effects on the victims, at home and abroad. It is no favor to those who are suffering, and may face much worse ahead, to overlook these facts. Keeping the Bush circle out means holding one’s nose and voting for some Democrat, but that’s not the end of the story. The basic culture and institutions of a democratic society have to be constructed, in part reconstructed, and defeat of an extremely dangerous clique in the presidential race is only one very small component of that.
Alam: Assuming a continued presence of US occupation forces in Iraq and a stubborn armed resistance among a generally hostile population, do you believe that racism, intolerance, and national chauvinism will rise in America itself- particularly against Muslims and anti-war forces?
Chomsky: Putting aside judgments about the situation in Iraq, if the (very surprising) failures of the military occupation continue, they may engender the kinds of reactions you describe, but alongside of others that are much more healthy and offer plenty of opportunities. That is generally true of wars. Anti-Japanese racism during World War II was incredible – I can well remember it, as a young teenager. And the cities were not much fun here either, as again I remember very well; in my own city, teenagers were often under a curfew because of race riots. Nevertheless, the war gave a strong impetus to a social democratic culture, in some ways going well beyond, which led to significant improvements in the domestic society. The same was true of Vietnam. Many shared Lyndon Johnson’s perception that if we don’t fight the “yellow dwarves” over there, they’ll “sweep over us and take all we have” (approximate quote). But it also was a major stimulus to popular movements that made it a far more civilized country, and are very much alive today.
Alam: Again assuming the continued presence of US troops in Iraq and the resulting Iraqi backlash, what do you believe would be the regional repercussions? Will Iran and Syria try to wield influence in Iraqi affairs to help resistance forces, or remain chastened by the proximity of US military forces to their own countries? Will a prolonged occupation inspire greater fury against America among ordinary Arabs in the region – enough to challenge their own Washington-backed governments?
Chomsky: I would be very surprised if Iran or Syria, or for that matter any state, gives support to the Iraqi resistance forces, particularly when the large majority of the population keeps its distance from them, and probably regards them with considerable hostility and fear. As to the likely impact in the Arab world, it is very hard to say. No one knows, including the “ordinary Arabs in the region” themselves. There is plenty of anger and resentment against their own brutal governments and the US, but it could take many different forms. Just to illustrate the near impossibility of prediction, consider the first Intifada, which broke out in December 1987. Israel had the territories under very tight control and surveillance, with collaborators everywhere and a very strong presence of military and secret services. The population had been remarkably quiescent throughout the long and harsh occupation, silently suffering terror, torture, daily humiliation, robbery of their land and resources, with scarcely any resistance. They were described as “samidin” – those who resist by enduring. Suddenly everything changed. The Israeli military and civilian authorities did not have a clue about what was happening, and the PLO was caught equally by surprise. I happened to be able to see a little of it first-hand, but it was clear enough from close reading of the Israeli press and other sources. That’s not at all unusual.
Alam: Often the so-called ‘war on terror’ is depicted by its American supporters as a civilizational war, pitting an advanced, upright nation against a sea of savage, senseless, Islamic barbarians. This depiction is interesting because it has always resonated well with a crucial U.S. ally whose role in this endeavor has been controversial and, to many, vague: Israel. You argue in Hegemony or Survival that Israel “has virtually no alternative to serving as a US base in the region and complying with U.S. demands.”
Others, however, particularly in the Arab world, see Israel as using the financial clout of the pro-Israel lobby in the US to press its own demands. Some Israeli dissidents cite not financial but ideological influence: prefacing a summary of interviews with William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and Thomas Friedman, Ari Shavit of the Israeli daily Haaretz, wrote that “the ardent faith [in war against Iraq] was disseminated by a small group of 25 to 30 neoconservative intellectuals, almost all of them Jewish, almost all of them intellectualsâ€¦” Even the non-neoconservative Friedman, according to Shavit, justified the Iraq war as a replay of Jenin on a world scale. Do you consider it possible that, precisely because Israel depends so much on US support, pro-Israel intellectuals argue for US military action against the Arab world? Or is the role of neoconservatism and intellectuals like Kristol and Krauthammer overblown and only a subtext to a larger point?
Chomsky: It is impossible to give a measure to the influence of the Israeli lobby, but in my opinion it is more of a swing factor than an independently decisive one. It is important to bear in mind that it is not neoconservatives, or Jewish. Friedman, for example, is a liberal in the US system. The union leadership, often strong supporters of Israeli crimes, are protypical liberals, not neocons. The self-styled “democratic socialists” who modestly call themselves “the decent left” have compiled an unusually ugly record in support of Israeli government actions ever since Israel’s massive victory in 1967, which won it many friends in left-liberal circles, for a variety of reasons. The Christian right is a huge voting bloc, plainly not Jewish, and in fact to a significant extent anti-Semitic, but welcomed by the government of Israel and its supporters because they support Israel’s atrocities, violence, and aggression, for their own reasons. It is a varied and large group, which happens also to constitute a substantial part of the intellectual elite, hence the media elite, so of course there is ideological influence.
However, these groups rarely distance themselves far from what they know to be authentic power: state-corporate power. If US government policy would shift, they would shift along with it, maybe with some snapping at the heels of the powerful, but never daring too much. That has been fairly consistent in the past, and I think there is good reason to expect similar behavior in the future. Privilege and rewards do not come from confronting power, but by serving it, perhaps with some complaints at the margins while pouring out lies and slanders against anyone who strays a few millimeters to far from doctrinal orthodoxy, a primary function of respectable intellectuals throughout history. Particularly since its 1967 victory, state power has generally regarded Israel as a very important “strategic asset,” by now virtually an offshore military base and militarized high-tech center closely linked to the US and major regional US allies, particularly Turkey. That opens the way for the ideological influence to exert itself – lined up with real power. The story is far more complex than anyone can describe in a few words, but my feeling is that the essentials are pretty much like that. That is true of domestic lobbies quite generally, in a state capitalist society with very close ties between state and corporate power, a very obedient intellectual class, and a narrow political spectrum primarily reflecting the interests of power and privilege.
Alam: Israel’s rhetoric and actions appear to be pulling in opposite directions. Its actions clearly point to greater brutalization and destruction of the Palestinians, as evidenced by continued construction of illegal settlements, erection of a separation wall which annexes more Palestinian land, and military raids leading to the death of innocents on a weekly basis. And yet some in the official establishment, from dissenting Refusenik air force pilots and special forces to former Shinbet officials and senior Likud officials like Ehud Olmert, are openly questioning the occupation and calling for unilateral withdrawal to preserve the “Jewish-democratic character” of Israel in the face an impending demographic crisis whereby Arabs will outnumber Jews in Eretz Israel.
Given that Zionism is, as Norman Finkelstein writes in Image and Reality, “grounded in its pre-emptive right to establish a Jewish state in Palestine – a right that, allegedly, superseded the aspirations of the indigenous population,” do you think the pragmatists advocating withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank can trump those who still want to pretend the indigenous Palestinians are, as Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann once said, “a matter of no consequence”?
Chomsky: I think it would be very likely to happen if “the boss-man called `partner’” – as more astute Israeli commentators refer to the US – were to change course and inform them that the time has come to obey the overwhelming international consensus that the US government has been blocking for 30 years. The “demographic crisis” is impelling hawks in the same direction. The “refuseniks” and Israeli solidarity groups are brave and honorable people, who deserve very bit of support we can give them. Their inability to have much of an impact is our fault, not theirs. No group in Israel can gain much credibility within unless it has strong support from the society of the boss-man.