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Moral Justification


You have been a leading critic of United States foreign policy in the past – what view do you take on Barack Obama's performance as President in this area since he took office, I know you were critical of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden? 

"There used to be a principle in Anglo-American law called presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law. When a suspect is apprehended and can easily be brought to trial, to assassinate him is simply a crime. Incidentally, the invasion of Pakistan was also a violation of international law."

So is there any possible moral justification for the CIA's drone strikes in countries like Yemen and Pakistan, which have allegedly occurred under Obama's leadership of the White House?

"There is no justification for targeted assassination. There were things going on before, under the last president, but the Obama administration has extended earlier procedures to a global assassination campaign directed at people suspected of encouraging others to carry out what the US calls terrorist acts. What are called 'terrorist acts' also raises rather serious questions and that's an understatement. Take, for example, the Guantanamo Bay case of a 15-year-old boy – who was accused of having picked up a rifle to defend his village, in Afghanistan, when it was being attacked by American soldiers. He was accused of terrorism and then sent to Guantanamo for a total of eight years. After eight years of imprisonment, where what happens is no secret, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to another eight years in prison. This is terrorism, a 15-year-old boy defending his village from terrorism?"

So you think that, potentially, Obama's foreign policy approach has been worse than that of George W. Bush – in certain areas?

"In terms of state terror and that's what I would call this, I have to say yes – and that has already been pointed out by military analysts. The Bush administration policy was to kidnap suspects, send them to secret prisons where they were not treated very nicely as we know. But the Obama administration has escalated that policy to you don't kidnap them, but you kill them. Now remember, these are suspects – even, in the case of Osama bin Laden. It is plausible that he did plan and organise the 9/11 attacks, but plausible and proven are two different things. It is worth remembering that eight months after the attacks, in April 2002, the head of the FBI – in his most detailed statement to the press was only able to say that they believed that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan by bin Laden but implemented in the United Arab Emirates, Germany and the US. No firm evidence has been presented, at least publicly, since that time. The government-created 9/11 commission had a lot of material that was circumstantial evidence that was reasonably plausible, but it's doubtful that any of it would have held up in an independent court. The evidence they had was provided to them by the government on the basis of interrogation of suspects under very cruel conditions, as we know. It is highly unlikely that an independent tribunal could have considered such evidence seriously."

How do you see the Libya conflict – were western forces, particularly Europe, right to intervene?

"The three traditional imperial powers of Britain, France and the US participated in a civil war on the side of the rebels that had nothing to do with the United National Security Council resolution. Was the imperial triumvirate acting appropriately, I think that is a question that has to be discussed and debated. It certainly was not a popular move internationally. I mean it's called the international community, but most of the world opposed it. Libya is an African country and the African Union was calling for negotiations and diplomacy, and they were disregarded. Brazil, Russian, India and China – the BRIC countries – had a conference in China at the time, and they also issued a declaration calling for diplomacy and negotiations. Even Turkey, at the beginning, was tepid and Egypt didn't support it, and there was practically no support in the Arab world.

"The real question is – could the mandate to protect civilians have been carried out through diplomacy? Libya is a highly tribal society and there is a lot of conflict among the tribes, who knows what is going to come out of all this. The transitional government has already stressed that there will be strict adherence to Sharia law and denying the rights of women and so on and so forth. Very few people in the west understand much about all this. On the other hand, there was tremendous popular support for getting rid of Gaddafi – who was a terrible thug."

And do you see a widening and deepening of the Arab spring as time goes by and rebels in states like Syria and Iran gain heart from the achievements of the once oppressed citizens in Libya?

"Iran is a different case – it has a harsh regime, but quite different circumstances. Syria is an extremely ugly situation that is descending into violent civil war. Nobody has proposed a sensible policy to deal with it. In large parts of the Arab world, the pro-democracy uprisings have been very quickly crushed. In Saudi Arabia, the most extreme radical Islamist state and closest ally of the US and Britain, there were mild efforts at protest and they were crushed pretty quickly – so much so that people were afraid to come out on the streets again. The same is true of Kuwait and that whole region – the oil region. In Bahrain, protests were initially tolerated before being violently crushed with the assistance of a Saudi-led invasion force in very ugly ways, like invading a hospital and attacking patients and doctors.

"In Egypt and Tunisia, there has been significant progress – but it is limited. In Egypt, the military has shown no intention of relaxing its control of society – although, the country now has a free press and a labour movement has been able to organise and act independently. Tunisia also has a history of labour activism. And so, the progress towards democracy and freedom is pretty closely correlated with the rise of long-term militant activism. That shouldn't surprise westerners because that is exactly what happened in the west."

How do you see geopolitics playing out over the coming decades with the rise of the BRICs, the lack of stability in the Middle East and the decline of the west?

"The US and Europe have somewhat different problems. Europe is facing quite severe financial problems, that is no secret, that are in part traceable to the relatively human approach towards integrating the poorer countries together with the richer nations. Before the European Union was established and the poorer southern countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain were brought in, there were efforts to made to reduce the sharp differences between the rich advanced countries and poorer ones – so that northern European workers wouldn't have to face competition from an impoverished and exploited working class in the south. There was compensatory funding and other measures, which – of course – didn't eliminate the gap but removed it sufficiently so that the poorer countries could be brought in without a very harsh effect on the rich northern ones.

"Europe is now paying the price of its relatively humane approach and its failure to deal with some very serious problems such as the extraordinary independence of the European Central Bank and its religious dedication to anti-inflation policies – which are not the ones that should be followed at a time of decline and recession. Europe should be doing the opposite like the US where the policies are somewhat more realistic."

What role do you think Europe and the US will play in this new world order – potentially, reflecting multi-polarity rather than western hegemony? 

"Europe and the US are still a huge part of the global economy; there is no doubt about that. If Europe can get its house in order, and I think it will have to change its economic policies, it has options. What Europe needs now is not an austerity programme, but a stimulus package to restore growth so that down the road you can take care of the debt problem. The same is true in the US. There is plenty of money for a stimulus programme in both regions. It might increase debt, but that is a much longer-term problem. There is plenty of wealth in our societies; the question is how it is going to be used.

"The common theme all over the international affairs literature is what's called western decline and the corollary conclusion that global power is once again shifting to the rising powers of China and India. That argument is implausible, economic growth in China has been quite spectacular in many ways – but these are very poor countries. Per capita income is well below that in the west and they have enormous internal problems. China, considered to be the main economic engine, is still today largely an assembly plant. If you calculate the US trade deficit with China accurately in terms of value added, you find that the figure declines by about 25 per cent and increases with Japan, Taiwan and Korea by approximately the same. The reason is that parts, components and high technology are flowing into China from the peripheral, more industrialised, societies as well as the US and Europe – and China is assembling them. If you buy an iPad or something that says 'exported from China', very little of the value added is in China. 

"Certainly, later on, China will climb up the technology ladder – but it's a hard climb and the country has very serious internal problems including a demographic problem. The country's growth period has been associated with a big bulge in young workers in their twenties and thirties, but that is changing – partly, because of the 'one child' policy. What is coming is a decline in the working-age population and an increase in the elderly population. The Chinese will doubtless grow and be important, but India is even more impoverished with hundreds of millions of people living in misery. The world is becoming more diverse and a more diverse century is coming. With the rise of the BRICs, there is a diffusion of power coming. As far as American decline is concerned, it began in the 1940s. The US reached the peak of its powers in 1945, when it literally had half the world's wealth and production with incredible security – there was nothing like it in history. That began to decline very quickly and the so-called 'loss of China' occurred in 1949. It was taken for granted that we possessed the world, that we owned it. Pretty soon, there was the 'loss of South East Asia'. That's what the inter-China wars were about and the coup in Indonesia

"In the last decade, we have seen what is called the 'loss of South America'. South America has started to move towards independence and integration and the US has been expelled from every military base there. And there are unions being created in Latin America, South America, Africa, and the Middle East. The west and its allies are trying hard to control this, but its continuing. And, in China, there is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – which includes the central Asian states, with Russia, India and Pakistan being observers. The US has been excluded and so far it is an energy-based, economic-based international organisation. Yet, it is another part of this diversification of power in the world. 

"American decline is to a significant extent self-inflicted. Since the 1970s, western economies took a sharp turn. Throughout history, the tendency has been towards growth and hopefulness. That changed in the 1970s, when there was a shift in the economy towards financialisation and offshoring of production because of the declining rate of profit in manufacturing. What has happened is very high concentration of wealth – mostly, in a tiny part of the financial sector – and stagnation and decline for the larger part of the population. You have slogans today like the "99 per cent and the 1 per cent". The numbers aren't entirely correct, but the general picture is. It is very serious as it has led to spectacular wealth in very few pockets – although, it is very harmful to the countries involved. The protests we are seeing around the world at the moment are another symptom of that."

Noam Chomsky is professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US. He has authored more than one hundred books including Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. 

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