(1) Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book, Perilous Power, is about? What is it trying to communicate?
Perilous Power is a dialogue about U.S. policy in the Middle East between two of the most astute analysts of this part of the world: Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar. Chomsky, of course, needs no introduction to ZNet readers. This is his first totally new book devoted exclusively to the Middle East since The Fateful Triangle. Achcar, whose writings on the Middle East have appeared often on ZNet, grew up and lived for many years in Lebanon. He is the author of, among other books, The Clash of Barbarisms and Eastern Cauldron, and editor of The Israeli Dilemma.
In this new book, Chomsky and Achcar bring to bear a keen understanding of the internal dynamics of the Middle East and of the role of the United States, taking up all the key questions, including such topics as terrorism, fundamentalism, conspiracies, oil, democracy, self determination, anti-Semitism, and anti-Arab racism, as well as the war in Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the sources of U.S. foreign policy.
This current book is not two writers’ separate essays strung together. It is based on a dialogue between them — sometimes agreeing, sometimes complementing one another’s analysis based on their own perspectives and information, and sometimes disagreeing — and as such it represents more than the sum of its parts. Through their conversation, a richer understanding emerges from their shared commitments and their varied expertise and experiences.
The book aims to provide an introduction to U.S. policy in the Middle East for the general reader, but it also has much that will be of interest to those with some background on the region. Whether discussing the Israel lobby, the role of Saudi Arabia in U.S. policy, or the different Iraqi political forces, Perilous Power offers many useful insights. And the exchange on short-term solutions for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should prove particularly provocative.
(2) Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?
Noam and Gilbert decided from the outset that it would be useful to have a third person present to moderate their face-to-face conversation, and I was invited to serve in this role. This project was to be a two-way conversation, but where a third party would pose the questions, keep the discussion on track, and take care of the technical process of recording, enabling the two discussants to concentrate on their analyses and arguments. As much as possible, I tried to keep out of the conversation, just moving it along as necessary.
The procedure we followed involved several steps. We began by developing a list of questions to be addressed. The three of us got together in Noam’s office at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for three days of conversation in early January 2006. The recordings were transcribed and I prepared a rough edit, eliminating redundancy and tangents, reordering some of the sections, and improving readability. Then Gilbert and Noam each went through and edited their remarks. The goal here was not to produce a faithful verbatim transcript of the conversation. Rather the idea was to allow each of them to clarify or expand on their remarks (though not to change a major argument to which the other had already responded). We took the view that oral comments made without access to sources should not serve as the last word. So we verified facts and checked and filled in quotations as necessary. And, because we believe that readers should not be expected to take what authors say on faith, we felt it important to add in documentation for all non-obvious or controversial claims. In the Summer of 2006, each of the authors wrote an Epilogue in which they commented on more recent developments.
(3) What are your hopes for Perilous Power? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?
A fundamental change in United States policy toward the Middle East would make us more than happy. But the effort will have been worthwhile if it helps to make the average person in the West and especially the United States more informed about and uncomfortable with current U.S. policies in the Middle East and if it helps critics sharpen their analysis and understanding. Too often critics discuss Iraq as if the categories “collaborator” and “resistance” are sufficient to make sense of what is going on. Or that U.S. policy in the Middle East can be fully explained by reference to the Israel lobby. Or that Islamic fundamentalism must either be accepted as a justification for Washington’s imperial foreign policy or dismissed as a figment of the Bush administration’s imagination. With a fuller appreciation of the Middle East situation, critics should be better able to oppose U.S. policy and work for a more just and peaceful world.
[You can purchase the book at a 15% individual customer discount at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=143446]
Other Major Powers and Iraq
Shalom: Back in February 2003, when prowar forces in the United States were pouring out all their French wine and renaming French fries because France wasn’t cooperating in the Security Council, a lot of people in the antiwar movement were sort of cheering on France and Germany and Russia, and other governments that opposed the war. How reliable are these governments in their antiwar stances?
Chomsky: Their reliability is approximately zero. Sensible antiwar activists don’t ally themselves with governments. There was something important about their position — namely, there was a reason why they were being so bitterly denounced by U.S. elites: They were meeting minimal conditions of democracy. For whatever reason — pure cynicism, in fact — they were acting the way a democratic government is supposed to act. In short, they were responding to the will of the overwhelming majority of their populations. The position of the antiwar movement should have been that it’s fine that these governments are paying attention to their populations, whatever their reasons may be, but we certainly don’t ally with them, or have any trust in them. What happened here was quite intriguing, but was basically ignored. I can’t recall any display of hatred and contempt for democracy as extreme as what took place in those months in the United States, pretty much across the spectrum. There was what Rumsfeld called “Old Europe” and “New Europe.” Under his definition, they are distinguished by a very sharp criterion: Old Europe consists of the countries where the governments took the same position as that of a large majority of the population; New Europe — the “hope for democracy” — is the governments that disregard an even larger percentage of the population. Some of it was almost comical, like Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi being invited to the White House as the representative of the hope for democracy. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But the worst case was JosÃ© MarÃa Aznar, the Spanish prime minister. He was so lauded by Bush and by British prime minister Tony Blair as the hope for democracy that he was brought to their summit in the Azores, where they basically declared the war a couple of days before the invasion. Aznar joined in this war declaration right after polls in Spain showed that the war had the support of 2 percent of the population, so therefore he’s the great hope for democracy. He was willing to follow orders from Crawford, Texas, with 2 percent of the population supporting him. What does that tell you about the attitudes toward democracy?
Some of it became surreal. When the Turkish government, to everyone’s surprise, including mine, went along with the opinion of 95 percent of its population and refused to allow a U.S. offensive through Turkey, the Turkish government was bitterly condemned for lacking democratic credentials — that was the phrase that was used — because it went along with the opinion of 95 percent of the public. That great dove, Secretary of State Colin Powell, immediately announced we’re going to have to have sanctions against Turkey. Most extreme was former undersecretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz. He is the person identified in the United States and, as far as I know, the European media as the leading force in democracy promotion — the “idealist in chief,” as he was called in the Washington Post. He berated the Turkish military for not intervening to compel the government to overrule 95 percent of the population; he basically ordered them to apologize to the United States, and to say, “Let’s figure out how we can be as helpful as possible to the Americans.” And this was supposed to be democracy. And this farce went on, without comment. The fact that anyone can talk about democracy promotion, after this display, is astounding.
This is what the antiwar movement should be emphasizing. And if there are a couple of governments that for their own cynical reasons happen to agree with the majority of the population and take the right position, fine, but that’s the end of it; there’s nothing more to say about them. Tomorrow they’ll do the opposite, because they’re acting out of pure cynicism — power interests — anyway.
Achcar: Noam’s quite right to stress the importance of this feature of our times. There’s a general trend at the level of the mainstream media to praise those ruling politicians who rule without considering the polls; that is deemed a great virtue. But behind it is the very elitist idea, also embedded in the very concept of “representative democracy,” that, once elected, a representative is free to do whatever he or she wants, even against the unanimous will of his or her constituency. But I must also say that in the case of the three governments that we’ve mentioned — France, Germany, and Russia — it was certainly not out of any consideration for democracy that they were against the war. I don’t need to elaborate on the Russian government. But even the French and German governments do not hesitate to pursue the most unpopular neoliberal policies and assaults on social gains. On the issue of Iraq, their motivation was definitely not any democratic principle: There were much more down-to-earth considerations at stake.
Iraq is a country where there was a direct clash of interests, in a very primary economic sense, between the United States and Britain, on the one hand, and France and Russia — one could add China — on the other hand. The Soviet Union and France were the main partners of Saddam Hussein for many years, providing him with arms. France, especially, was his main military backer in the war against Iran. And despite Russian collusion and French participation in the 1991 war on Iraq, Saddam Hussein tried to play his traditional partnership with France and Russia, during the UN embargo years, as a counterweight to the United States and Britain in the Security Council. French and Russian companies were granted important oil concessions that were conditioned on lifting the embargo. That is why at some point Paris and Moscow changed their attitude, trying to find ways to lift the embargo, and were blocked on that by Washington and London. The United States and British refusal to lift the embargo — that is, to allow the lifting of the embargo if and when UN inspectors determined that Iraq had disarmed — was rightly perceived by Paris and Moscow as a refusal to permit them to take advantage of the oil concessions they had been granted. And they very much saw the dedication of Washington and London to invade Iraq as a desire to snatch the prize from them. Actually one of the first proclamations after the invasion was that all contracts granted by Saddam Hussein were to be considered null and void. So that’s the main reason why Paris and Moscow opposed that war. Had the Bush administration offered them a substantial slice of the cake, I’m sure they would have joined in. But the Bush administration was so arrogant that it didn’t want to grant them much of anything, and that’s why they kept opposing the war to the end.
In the German case, there were no direct economic interests at stake. At best, if one were generous with German chancellor Gerhard SchrÃ¶der, one could grant him some concern over superior geopolitical considerations — for example, to say that he had some concerns about the fact that the United States should not have all the levers over Europe — and one could link that also to the very close relationship he had nurtured with Putin, and the deals being worked out for a new gas pipeline going from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. But that would be a generous assessment of SchrÃ¶der’s motivation. If one wanted to be less generous, one would just stress that there’s a big dose, not of democracy but of opportunist electoralism, behind his stance, because the preparation for the invasion of Iraq happened at a time when the German chancellor was projected as the loser in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, because of his neoliberal social program, which caused the traditional constituency of social democracy to be reluctant to support him; and therefore, the only popular issue he could find was opposition to the war, at a time when, indeed, the polls were showing that the overwhelming majority of German public opinion was opposed to the war.
Rulers like Chirac, Putin, or SchrÃ¶der should definitely not be regarded as allies by the antiwar movement, especially since they are themselves hawkish warmongers when their interests are at stake. Russian forces are waging a terrible quasi-genocidal war in Chechnya. The French government still considers itself a colonial power in Africa, and behaves as such. Not to mention the fact that both France and Germany are involved in Afghanistan, along with the U.S. troops. To that we should add that although Paris and Berlin did not support the invasion of Iraq politically, technically speaking they did everything they could to facilitate it: the Germans, of course, by letting the whole U.S. military infrastructure on their territory be used for that purpose, the French by opening their airspace to U.S. warplanes. So we should not be fooled by such governments. The antiwar movement, at least its most dynamic sectors, is closely linked with the global justice movement, and I believe that’s a very good combination because these are two facets of the same reality: opposition to imperial wars and to neoliberalism.
Chomsky: I could add an analogous comment about U.S. attitudes. I don’t think it’s just arrogance; the United States has a real interest in undermining France and Germany, because they are the industrial, commercial, and financial center of Europe. The rest is a kind of periphery. The United States has had a deep concern back through the 1940s that Europe might strike out on an independent path. That’s one of the reasons they were so concerned about French president Charles de Gaulle, with his call for a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. And the forces that might impel Europe that way today are “Old Europe.” That’s one of the reasons the United States was so much in favor of expanding the European Union (EU) to include the former Soviet satellites, which it plausibly assumes it can control. And it’s one of the reasons also why U.S. policymakers are so supportive of getting Turkey into the EU — not because they love Turkey, but because that’s another way of diluting the influence of the powerful sectors in Europe and ensuring, they hope, that Europe will remain under U.S. control. Whatever position Germany and France had taken on the Iraq war, that would remain constant.
It’s also what happened in 1990 when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to allow Germany to be unified, which from the Russian point of view was an enormous threat. Unlike the United States, Russia has real security concerns. Germany alone practically destroyed Russia twice in the first half of the twentieth century. For a unified Germany to be incorporated into a Western military alliance was a tremendous threat. So Gorbachev agreed to German unification, but on one condition: that he get a firm pledge from Bush Sr. that NATO would not expand to the east. Within a couple of years, however, Clinton just reneged on the commitment, and expanded NATO to the east, right to the borders of Russia. Russia responded, as you’d expect, by beginning to increase its offensive military capacity. Russia had been pressing very hard for the elimination of nuclear weapons, and it had declared — as the United States and NATO had not — that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. After Clinton’s backing down on the NATO pledge, Russia backed down on its moves and moved toward a more militaristic, offensive posture, extended more under Bush Jr. These are really important developments that are part of the background of the hysteria about Old Europe and New Europe. New Europe is important for the United States as a way of undermining European independence.
Achcar: I quite agree. But we should also stress the fact that in New Europe public opinion was overwhelmingly against the war, even more so than in Old Europe!
Chomsky: The only place prowar sentiment reached 10 percent was Romania.
Achcar: So it was in New Europe that governments most disdained the opinions of their own populations.
Chomsky: But they are obedient to the United States when they dilute European independence.
1. Agence France Presse, “Majority of Spanish Against War on Iraq,” February 22, 2003. According to this article, 2.3 percent supported a war waged by the United States and its allies without UN authorization (the actual war that was waged), 11.8 percent opposed war unless there was UN authorization, and 84.7 percent opposed war in all circumstances.
2. Richard Boudreaux and John Hendren, “U.S. Drops Its Bid to Base Troops in Turkey,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2003, p. A5.
3. David Ignatius, “A War of Choice, and One Who Chose It,” Washington Post, November 2, 2003, p. B1.
4. Mark Lacey, “Turkey Rejects Criticism by U.S. Official over Iraq,” New York Times, May 8, 2003, p. A15. Wolfowitz said: “Let’s have a Turkey that steps up and says: ‘We made a mistake. We should have known how bad things were in Iraq, but we know now. Let’s figure out how we can be as helpful as possible to the Americans.'” Wolfowitz “singled out the Turkish military for criticism. ‘I think for whatever reason, they did not play the strong leadership role that we would have expected.'” For Turkish poll data, see Philip P. Pan, “Turkey Plans for 62,000 U.S. Troops,” Washington Post, February 26, 2003, p. A17.
5. This is apart from the allegations that German intelligence helped the American military during its invasion. See, for example, Richard Bernstein, “2 German Roles: Opposing War and Aiding U.S.,” New York Times, March 3, 2006, p. A12.
6. See Gallup International, Iraq Poll, conducted 2003, available online at http://www.gallup-international.com/ContentFiles/survey.asp?id=10.
[Excerpted from Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, by Noam Chomsky & Gilbert Achcar, edited with a Preface by Stephen R. Shalom, published by Paradigm Publishers, pp. 90-95. To purchase the book at a 15% individual customer discount, go to http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=143446.]