Beware of State Power

Noam Chomsky is the world’s leading critic of US power. He has been voted the most important intellectual of the 20th century and has published more than 30 leading political works, many of them bestsellers. In his first ever interview with the Bangkok Post, Professor Chomsky discusses regional and global issues with GEORGE MCLEOD.

George McLeod: As you know, Thailand‘s Thaksin government was deposed in a military coup. Thaksin was criticised for undemocratic rule and corruption. Can you comment on the Thai coup? Do you believe that it is possible for a coup to bring about democratic change?

Noam Chomsky: In principle the answer is yes, almost anything is possible, but the burden of proof for using force to overthrow a government is very high. There has to be a very heavy burden of proof and they have to demonstrate conclusively strong arguments that the use of force is legitimate.

For example, there is plenty of corruption in Washington – there is favoritism and headlines one day after another, but that doesn’t justify a military coup.

In the case of Thailand – and let me say that I do not have a detailed, specialised knowledge of it – I did not think that the burden of proof was met.

My expectation was that the outcome of the military coup would be a system that was worse than the one it overthrew, except for small sectors of the population that were privileged and wealthy and may benefit from it.

McLeod: The US has imposed trade sanctions on the Burmese junta. Given the brutality of the Burmese regime, do you think that this is an example of the US taking a positive stance in the region?

Chomsky: The US can have and occasionally does have benign influences on many things. Now exactly how to deal with the Burmese junta is a question that has to be raised.

Burma has a rotten, horrible government and surely, someone should try to help the Burmese people to free themselves from it, but the question of exactly how to do it is not simple.

Sanctions often backfire – you really have to think of the right means of doing it. Sometimes, engagement is more effective.

You really have to think this through, you cannot just have formulas.

McLeod: Turning to China, you mentioned that China is becoming a major competitor to US power in Asia, and even that the US is “frightened by China.” How does China pose a threat to US interests in Asia?

Chomsky: China does not pose a military threat. In fact, of all the major powers, China has probably been the most restrained in building up its military forces. China poses a very serious threat to US power because it cannot be intimidated by the US.

Take for example Iran and Iraq. The US wants the world to boycott Iran in pursuit of US policies. Europe sort of shakes its fist, but then Europe pretty much backs off. So when the US warns countries not to invest in Iran, European investors – banks and so on – tend to pull out.

China on the other hand doesn’t pay attention. They just go ahead and do what they want to do… The idea that there is a potentially powerful state that cannot easily be intimidated is very threatening to people who want to rule the world.

(The US) is a little bit like the mafia. The Godfather does not tolerate disobedience, even in a small storekeeper, let alone somebody that matters, so that’s a threat.

However the US-China relationship is also very ambivalent. On one hand, from the point of view of state power, China is threatening because it follows its own course.

On the other hand, powerful US business interests are highly influential in determining state policy. These businesses have a real stake in China – it is a wonderful platform for cheap exports and a potential market. They want relations with China to be strong, so there is an internal conflict in the US.

Remember that China has enormous financial reserves that surpass Japan – it is keeping the US economy afloat. So it’s a pretty tricky, complex relationship.

McLeod: Does Asia have much to worry about from China‘s rising power and influence?

Chomsky: Anytime a big power is developing, everybody has to worry, including the Chinese people.

Concentrations of power are dangerous. There is plenty of history about that.

How much does it have to worry? Well, that depends on how things develop, so closer relations between India and China, which are now developing, could be beneficial to Asia. It’s much better than having them muscle their neighbours.

McLeod: In your writings and speeches, you have said that the Asian Energy Security Grid is a very important issue, even though it hasn’t received much attention in the media. Could you describe what the energy grid is and how it is important?

Chomsky: There are actually two parallel organisations. One is the Asian Energy Security Grid, and the other is the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCC). Both are pretty much based in China.

The US applied for observer status to the SCC and was turned down, which was a blow. The central Asian states are part of it, Iran has observer status, India and Pakistan will probably join and Russia is a part of it.

The SCC is taking the form of a counterpart to NATO, and this is a large part of the conflict in the Middle East. And you are right that it is not discussed much here. (US Vice President Dick) Cheney, not long ago, gave a speech in Lithuania where he said that control over energy resources and pipelines can’t be used as tools of intimidation and bribery – I think that was his phrase. Now he was referring to control of resources in the hands of others. Remember that others see exactly the same with the energy resources that are in the hands of the US

Control of energy is a major problem. China and Russia and India understand very well that if there is going to be anything like what some people call an Asian century, they are going to have to control their energy resources.

But the North Korean problem is part of this too… North Korea has no economic resources to speak of, but it is the natural place for pipelines to go from the Siberian energy resources into South Korea and through to Japan. Also the trans-Siberian railroad might extend through there, so there is some geo-strategic significance as part of this very dynamic northeast Asian economic group.

McLeod: Do you believe that the Asian Energy Security Grid is a major factor in the conflict with Iran?

Chomsky: There are two basic issues with Iran. One is simply that, like Iraq, Iran is at the core of the energy producing system. However, there is another factor and that’s the mafia factor that I mentioned. Iran was successful and defiant of the US in 1979 when it overthrew the US-installed tyrant, and it has to be punished for that.

You take a look at US policies ever since 1979. First under the Carter administration, the US tried to instigate a military coup in Iran, but that didn’t work. So under Regan, they turned to supporting Saddam Hussein and his aggression against Iran, which was not a small thing.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed by chemical weapons, and the US and Britain and other western powers, and Russia too, provided full support for Saddam Hussein right through the worst atrocities… After that came harsh embargoes and boycotts, sabre rattling and other kinds of threats.

Right now, there are extensive naval deployments in the Gulf, which are almost certain to lead to some sort of confrontation even if by accident.

Take what happened (last week). Under disputed circumstances, an Iranian naval vessel captured a couple of small British naval boats. That is the kind of thing that can set off a major war.

There is a nuclear issue, but it is resolvable. In fact, if the US and Iran were functioning democracies, then it would be resolved. US public opinion and Iranian public opinion are very close on nuclear issues. Large majorities of both countries believe that Iran should have the right to produce nuclear energy on its own, and both same majorities believe that it should not have the right to develop nuclear weapons. Now that’s a possible resolution if both countries were democratic.

McLeod: Turning to Israel, you have been very critical of Israeli policies. However, many observers, such as author Alan Dershowitz, say that Israel has been disproportionately criticised. He cites the fact that the UN has condemned Israel more than any other country and argues that Israel is far from being the world’s worst human rights abuser. How do you respond to that?

Chomsky: Remember that Alan Dershowitz is a fanatic supporter of Israeli violence and atrocities, so he is not a neutral observer – he is way out in the extreme. It’s sort of like asking a communist party member in the 1950s, “Look how much Russia is condemned, it’s not the worst country in the world.”

But aside from that, there is a reason why Israel is condemned. Plenty of other countries are much worse internally. But the military occupation of Palestine is very harsh and it has a potential settlement – everyone knows what the settlement is: a two-state settlement based on the international border. But Israel and the US have rejected it.

However, in one respect I agree with Dershowitz. It is wrong to condemn Israel – you should be condemning the US. Israel can do nothing without US authorisation. It’s a small country and it consciously chose to be dependent on the US. We can even date it – in 1971, Israel was offered a full peace treaty by Egypt. Israel had a choice, either expansion or security. It chose expansion, and Henry Kissinger backed it, so Israel could do it.

Since then, Israel has lost its choices. If it wants a peace settlement, it can have it. The Arab League proposal of 2002, which is only one of many that go back to 1976, would grant Israel normalised relations and integration into the region. But it would mean abandoning expansion, which it does not want to do.

Figure another country that is in that situation, actually, there is one – Morocco, which is occupying the Western Sahara, but that’s a US ally, so it’s ignored.

McLeod: Israel has few natural resources and is not particularly significant economically. The US also pays a huge political cost for supporting Israel, so what does the US gain from its special relations with Israel?

Chomsky: We know that answer pretty well. The US-Israeli relationship in its current form began in 1967.

In 1967, Israel performed an enormous service for the US. It destroyed independent secular Arab nationalism, which was considered a major threat.

The oldest and most valued US ally is Saudi Arabia – that is where most of the oil is and Saudi is probably the most extremist fundamentalist Islamic tyranny in the world.

The main centre of Arab nationalism was Nasser’s Egypt. Israel destroyed Nasser’s secular nationalism, and that’s a tremendous boost to US power. Nasser was considered a great threat and it was feared that Nasser might use the region’s resources for the benefit of its people, rather than to the benefit of the West, and at that point, the relationship with Israel was firmed up.

In 1970, something even more important happened. The Palestinians were becoming an organised, secular nationalist movement, which is frightening (to the US). They were in confrontation with Jordan, a US-British ally.

In fact, the Jordanian army was slaughtering (the Palestinians). It looked briefly as if Syria might intervene to protect Palestinians and that was considered a major threat to the Hashemite monarchy and also to the Gulf tyranny in Saudi…The US could not intervene at the time because it was tied up in Indochina.

Israel – at US request – mobilised its forces and Syria had to back off. At that point, US aid to Israel quadrupled. That was essentially the end of secular nationalism in the Arab world.

Since then Israel has become a major US strategic asset. It’s a western implant right at the periphery of the energy-producing region. For example, when the US and Britain wanted to evade sanctions against South Africa as they did, one of the ways they did that was through Israel, which was pleased to have open connections with the apartheid state – they regarded themselves as in a similar situation.

That even extends to Southeast Asia when Carter wanted to increase US support for Indonesian aggression in East Timor, which was slaughtering the population. There were congressional barriers, so the US couldn’t support Indonesia directly and they got Israel to send US jets into Indonesia

And when you say there is no economic interest (in Israel), it’s not quite true. Israel is kind of an offset of the US high technology industry…

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