Nuclear proliferation and climate change are subjects of acute concern in the current moment, driven into an all-out state of emergency by the new Trump administration. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, world-renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky discusses the media coverage of these two major issues, highlighting US tensions with Russia, Iran and North Korea, as well as discussing the recent US airstrike on Syria’s Air Force base.
Daniel Falcone: What do you make of the distressing lack of discussion on climate change and nuclear proliferation in the mainstream media?
Noam Chomsky: If you want to learn something about nuclear weapons and why these issues are not being reported, take a look at the March 1 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where there is an absolutely spectacular article by two real experts — Hans M. Kristensen and Ted Postol from MIT. They discuss the new targeting systems that have been invented under the Obama Modernization Program that’s now being escalated by Trump, and it’s extremely dangerous. What they claim based on disclosed information is that the US missile systems have been improved by such a huge factor that they are now capable of instantly wiping out the Russian deterrent.
This is massive overkill and nuclear stability is gone, and of course, the Russians know this. What that implies is that if they ever feel a threat, they’re just going to be compelled to launch a preemptive strike because otherwise they’re dead, you know? And that means we’re all dead. This is the most important news that’s come out in I don’t know how long.
The New York Times and other mainstream outlets followed through on their conventional habits of praising the US and Trump’s latest strike of Syria but went on to lament that his foreign policy doctrine is improvisational. And, in some ways, based on the Cabinet appointments, it reminds me of Bush 43, where they select defenseless targets. Meanwhile they claim they’re trying to fight terrorism and nuclear proliferation, but it seems like they’re just enhancing it.
They certainly are not fighting nuclear proliferation. Well, if they want to fight nuclear proliferation, there are things they can do. Iran, which was never really an issue, could have been settled years ago. There’s an interesting book by the former Brazilian ambassador Celso Amorim. In 2010, he initiated an effort along with Turkey to settle the whole Iran issue. Nobody outside of the United States takes it to be much of an issue.
Here, it’s the worst threat in human history, but they made a deal with Iran for Iran to essentially give away its low enriched uranium to Turkey for storage, and in return, the Western powers (meaning the US) would provide them with ice tubs for their medical reactors. That basically would have ended it. It was immediately scratched by Obama and Clinton. And the main reason was they didn’t want anybody else to be involved in it. We were supposed to run things, but we didn’t say that. The ostensible reason was that Clinton was just on the verge of pressing for additional sanctions against Iran at the Security Council and didn’t want it undermined, so that shows the attitude toward proliferation. And the same is happening with North Korea. [Recently] they announced more offensive actions against North Korea.
Naval missiles are going to raise the level of [danger], [but] is there a diplomatic option? Yes, there is. North Korea and China have proposed what sounds like a pretty sensible option that North Korea should end its development of nuclear weapons — just no more, just keep it the way it is — and in return, the US should stop carrying out hostile military maneuvers on the North Korean border — nuclear capable B-52s and so on. The US immediately rejected it. And the press and everyone else said [little]….
This modernization program is a very clear example of how security doesn’t matter. There is no gain in security but massive overkill of the adversary’s deterrent capacity. The only consequence of it is to elicit the likelihood of a preemptive attack. And a preemptive attack leads to a nuclear winter world.
Not to mention we have a presence there militarily. I remember once you said something about how the deterrent wasn’t nuclear weapons, it was North Korean militarization pointed toward Seoul and the US military.
If the US were to attack North Korea, they’d certainly destroy North Korea, but South Korea would be pretty well wiped out too. They have amassed artillery aimed at Seoul that nobody can do anything about.
In regards to US relations to Syria, are there political solutions? Last time Medea Benjamin was on “Democracy Now!” she was saying how there are political options for the US and Syria and they’re never tried.
There were some suggestions in 2012. The Russian ambassador at the United Nations did make some proposals for a political settlement in which Assad would be slowly eased out. The West dismissed it immediately, and we don’t know if it was real, because it didn’t come from the Kremlin, and it was informal. But the point is every such proposal is immediately scotched. And you just don’t know if they’re real.
It’s kind of like 9/11. The Taliban, after all, did indicate that they might extradite Osama bin Laden, but the US wouldn’t hear of it. You’ve got to use force. Well, one of the reasons, the Taliban did ask for evidence and one of the problems was they didn’t have any evidence.
How do climate change and climate science intersect with the issue of nuclear weapons and those capabilities? It seems like a chance to talk about both.
One of the few institutions that’s worried about climate change is the Pentagon, because they’re going to be in trouble, like the Navy — the Norfolk Naval Base will be inundated when the sea level rises, and they’re worried about the fact that just plain sea level rise and other dangerous weather systems are going to cause huge floods of refugees.
Just take a look at Bangladesh. It’s a coastal plain — a couple hundred million people. What are they going to do if this gets worse — what’s going to happen then, you know?
With the emergence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it looks like business as usual with the cabinet members and their institutional roles. Is this cabinet in particular especially dangerous to the planet?
It’s incredible what’s happening, and what’s more astounding still is that there’s no comment. By now — since November 8 — the United States is literally alone in the world in first of all refusing to join in efforts to do something about it — but even worse, dedicated to making the situation worse. Every part of [the world] is trying to do something. The United States alone is trying to destroy it, and it’s not just Trump, it’s the whole Republican Party. You just can’t find words for it. And it’s not reported. It’s not discussed.
I mean the most important event on November 8 — which I’ve talked about a couple times, but nobody will listen — is that as you may know, at that time, there was an international conference going on in Morocco that was a follow up for the Paris conference — to put some teeth in the Paris agreements. But on November 8, the conferences stopped. The question was, Will we survive? Not a word about it. Even more amazing, the world is looking to China to save them. The US is the wrecking machine that is destroying everything. The world is hoping that China will somehow come to the rescue.
What does that mean about our establishment — that we look to China?
What it means is the United States is absolutely the most dangerous country in the world.
It doesn’t say a good thing about democracy or a hope for it.
It doesn’t have much to do with democracy, because a democracy barely functions under the neoliberal system. But most of the population is disenfranchised. It doesn’t matter what they think. Just look at the passionate rhetoric about how we can’t stand by when a country uses weapons to kill innocent civilians.
Right now, the United States is supporting Saudi Arabian military attacks and a famine policy — a starvation policy — overt policy of starvation in Yemen that is going to kill tens of thousands of people; it already is, in fact. But is anybody saying anything about it? Gareth Porter writes about [it] and a couple other people.
What do you think about the Trump administration in terms of the direction it is going, and what would the foreign policy look like? Is it just unpredictable because he is so unpredictable? Or will it follow a trajectory?
I think the foreign policy is really not their concern. Like the Syria strike. I mean, it meant almost nothing. They hit an empty air base. Within a day, it was functioning again. Planes were flying off it. It was for a domestic show, you know — show what a tough guy I am; I’m not Obama. And then go back to the “normal” — I think the real things that are happening are basically the Ryan budget and the Ryan legislative programs.
All of that’s going on right under the cover of the Trump/Spicer media extravaganzas. Those guys do one thing after another to keep the media attention focused on them. And it works. Turn on CNN and that’s what you hear, and meanwhile, these legislative achievements are being made which are chipping away at anything the government has that’s of any use to anybody. Ryan, I think, is the most dangerous guy in the government. He knows what he’s doing. And it’s very systematic. I presume he’s behind the cabinet appointments, but it’s pretty amazing that every single cabinet appointment is somebody devoted to destroying that part of government. Or making sure it doesn’t work. That’s put a lot of focus on the EPA, which is bad enough, but the most significant environmental programs are in the Department of Energy and they fall short because of that.
So the cabinet appointments in particular look like people deliberately chosen to undermine the function of the agencies?
Every single one: education, environment, labor — every single one is selected to undermine any aspect of government that’s of any help to people, and that doesn’t benefit the super-rich. And it’s absolutely systematic. The interesting question will be how long Trump’s constituency can fall for the con game. I mean, they’re being kicked in the face more than anybody else. But they still have faith in their man. If that collapses — which I suppose it will sooner or later — the Trump administration is going to have to turn to something pretty radical to try to maintain control.
What do you suppose is Russia’s attitude toward the Syrian strike? Do they see it as theater?
Well, there are some interesting questions there — you can understand why Assad would have been pretty crazy [to provoke a US intervention] because they’re winning the war. The worst thing for him is to bring the United States in. So why would he turn to a chemical weapons attack? You can imagine that a dictator with just local interests might do it, maybe if he thought he had a green light. But why would the Russians allow it? It doesn’t make any sense. And in fact, there are some questions about what happened, but there are some pretty credible people — not conspiracy types — people with solid intelligence credentials that say it didn’t happen.
Lawrence Wilkerson said that the US intelligence picked up a plane and followed that it probably hit an Al-Qaeda warehouse which had some sort of chemical weapon stored in it and they spread. I don’t know. But it certainly calls for at least an investigation. And those are not insignificant people [coming to this conclusion].
Could you talk about how the left is divided on the Syrian question?
The left is awful on this. For one thing, a large part of the left is pro-Assad. [In those circles], you can’t criticize Assad, but you know he’s a monstrous war criminal. And anyone who criticizes Assad is joining the US imperialists. That’s just ludicrous. I mean, whatever you think about this event, Assad is certainly responsible for the overwhelming mass of the atrocities. And it’s a horror story. So that’s part of the left. In fact, that’s about the only visible part of the left.
There are others who say we just shouldn’t get involved in another war, certainly. I mean, if in fact, the US story is correct, if it is true that Syria used chemical weapons, then it wouldn’t be a major crime to send a kind of shot across the bow saying you can’t do this anymore. Not the best thing in the world, but not a major crime, either. So, I think at the very least there should have been an inquiry into what happened. But just joining the bandwagon about how we’re finally standing up to crimes in Syria, that’s ridiculous.
I don’t agree with US intervention in Syria, but I also oppose Assad. How can one be opposed to Assad and be wary of US intervention at the same time?
There are people on the left who say, Look, we can’t let these atrocities go on, so let’s enter the war and get rid of Assad. The problem with that is you get into a nuclear war with Russia. And Syria gets wiped out along with everything else. So, it’s fine to say, OK, let’s stop the crimes, but how exactly?
NOTE: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.