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Noam Chomsky interviewed by Ramin Jahanbegloo

(M.I.T., June 2002) raminj@NED.ORG

1- Question: Why? That is the question that people in America have been asking ever since the terrible events of September 11, 2001. What are the attitudes, beliefs and motives from which this event sprang? What makes young men and women from Muslim countries wiling, even eager to turn themselves into suicide bombers? How did these men and women come to harbor such violent hatred of the United States of America? What are the roots, moral, intellectual and political of the violence we witnessed that day? American and European experts and commentators have been wrestling with these questions and yet their answers seem to be one-dimensional and totally isolated from the problems and daily sufferance of people in the Middle East.

Answer: Well, the experts you are talking about have a mission. Their mission is to present the United States in a favorable light and to make it seen as if anyone who is opposed to the United States must be deficient. So the standard view is that hate us because they didn't get out of the Middle Ages or they hate us because of our freedom and because of our wonderful activities or whatever. That is of course nonsense and the experts know it. They know the answer perfectly well; they just don't want to tell you the answer. In fact you can read the answer in the classified internal records of the US governmental documents. These are not new questions. These questions were asked fifty years ago. Let us take 1958 , which was an important year in the Middle East affairs. The US landed troops in Beirut, Iraq pulled out of the Anglo-American oil condominium and Nasser was considered as a threat. All these events were discussed by Eisenhower's cabinet and by the National Security Council which are now public. I read about them ten years ago when they were released. These documents ask the question. So Eisenhower points to his staff that "there was a campaign of hatred against us in the Middle East, not from the governments but from the people", and that question is discussed in the National Security Council, the highest planning body of the US government. The National security Council advises that there is a perception in the region that the United States supports status quo governments which are corrupt and repressive and block democracy and development and that we do so because of our interest in controlling the oil. According to the United States government that is what we did in the past and that is what we should do in the present therefore it's going to follow that there will be a campaign of hatred against us. This is the core answer. They knew it fifty years ago. When the Wall Street journal do a survey of the opinions of the bankers and managers of the multinationals, as they did after September 11, they get the same answers. Nothing much has changed. I mean if Bernard Lewis in Princeton wants to pretend that he doesn't know that, it's his choice. But he certainly knows as well as anybody else who has bothered to take a look at the internal records of the US government or the simple facts. The managers of multinational corporations and bankers in Saudi Arabia are not opposed to globalization. They are not opposed to be part of the Western culture, they are part of it as long as they can put their money in banks in London. I think the problem has never changed. As long as the US will be blocking democratization, modernization, independence in the Middle East and as long as the United States blocks independent nationalism and pursue particular policies as it did in Iran in 1953 or today in Israel and Palestine, that is going to create opposition from the people in that area of the world. If Americans bothered to go and visit the villages and the slums they would find that opposition but much harsher, because that people don't understand why the wealth of the region should drain off to the West instead of going to the people of the region. Of course they understand enough to know why it's happening and this creates a campaign of hatred. Now, out of all of this lots of things come. Take for example Palestine. What is remarkable about the occupation of Palestine is how people consider it in a passive way. I mean for thirty four years, there was no resistance. Thirty four years of a harsh and brutal occupation. The first reaction in the West came with the first Intifada. The suicide bombers is a very late phenomena in the Palestinian struggle for independence. Take for example Jenin. Before the first suicide bomber came forty people were killed in Jenin during the Intifada. I mean what is astonishing about this military occupation is that how little resistance there has been. Even against Israel thee has been practically no resistance. If there was a resistance, it was coming from outside and not from the inside territories. And now what infuriates the United States and Israel is that for the first time they don't have the monopoly of the violence. They still have a preponderance but not a monopoly. That is exactly what infuriated American and European experts. It was of course a horrible crime, but didn't they knew about it? If you travel around the Third World you see how people feel about the injustice of the West. But what shocked people in the West was that this was the first time in hundreds of years that they were vulnerable. Take a look at the history of European and American imperialism. What they say is: we do that to people in their countries but they shouldn't do it in our countries. I think September 11 lead to a lot of constructive questioning among the ordinary population in the West which I think is a good thing.

2- Question: September 11 also showed us how fragile the democratic institutions could be in the West. But apparently, the new global agenda after September 11 is giving priority to security over liberty and may well end up favoring autocratic measures over democratic ones. As a matter of fact I believe that global inequality has reached unprecedented heights.

Answer: There is no doubt that the governments in the West would love to impose more obedience and control over the populations of the Third World, but that is ordinary. I mean governments always want people to be passive and acquiescent. Almost every government around the world used the events of September 11 by taking it as a window of opportunity to achieve that. In countries like the United States, I don't think it had much of the effect. I think American people have won a high degree of freedom and they are not going to give it up. So the pressure is mostly on the vulnerable population like the immigrants or anyone who looks Middle Eastern. But in my opinion most of the American population will not tolerate a serious deterioration of the civil liberties. If you look at the legislation, it's very threatening. But I don't think they can implement it. On the other hand, the US administration is going to leave the governments in the Third Word the opportunity to become more harsh and oppressive as they can. As a matter of fact, I just came back from Turkey and Columbia where pretty vicious atrocities are going on. These atrocities are mostly happening after September 11 because the Third World governments have the feeling that have the authorization from the United States to be more oppressive. The same with Russia in Tchechnia. It's much worse than September 11 because they recognize that they have authorization to do that. This is understandable. The power groups are reacting to an earthquake and it gives them opportunities to do things. As long as the global inequalities are concerned perhaps the most interesting thing is the predictions of the US intelligence agencies about a year ago, before September 11. They projected what is going to happen for the next 15 years and what they called the most optimistic scenario was that the Western version of globalization would continue and it would lead to a greater financial volatility a widening economic divide in our world. Financial volatility means slower growth and people getting more and more poor. Widening economic divide means more inequality. So that's what they are predicting and expecting. Military planners did exactly the same assumptions. Take a look at the US Space Command under Clinton. They were planning the militarization of space. They were planning to put military weapons in space. One other reason for this militarization is the widening economic divide. There is going to be a lot of people around the world who are going to be marginalized and they are going to be unruly and they need to be controlled by force. So this is part of the justification of violating the outer space treaty and putting weapons in the outer space....

3- Question: Nineteen billion dollars were spent by the Bush administration in the war in Afghanistan and the American military budget is expanding more and more....

Answer: The war in Afghanistan was another opportunity to expand the military budget. Remember that the military budget has a lot of facets to it. This is one of the things that keep the economy going. A lot of hightec industry feeds from the military budget. This is called the "New Economy". The internet, telecommunications, computer systems, they all depend on the military spending. The military spending is a very nice way to subsidize private power, because it's paid for by the public. Therefore the corporations don't pay for it and they don't have to face the risks and the costs. So it's a perfect system. This was understood back in the 1940s and 1950s. They knew already at the time that the US hightec can't survive in a free enterprise society because it would not be accepted by itself. So there has to be some sort of public subsidy and the best way to do it is through the military. If you could frighten the people, they'll pay for it. And that's the substantial part of the military budget. Actually if you look back in history you see that a good deal of modern industrialization was done in that way. Of course it's much more since the Second World War. If you go back to 1900 you can see that the most advanced problems of science and of engineering, the real cutting edge of research had to do with things like placing huge guns on warships. That raised very complicated problems of mechanical and electrical engineering, because you had a monstrous gun on a moving platform and it's aiming at other moving things. So you needed a lot of calculation and research. There is a big strain of that through history. In fact right now take a look at US government's funding. The Pentagon spending on research and development is declining but the National Institute of Health spending is sharply increasing. The reason is that the cutting edge of the new economy is becoming biology based, so the public has to pay for the research and development there. They are actually partly working on curing cancer, but they are also partly working on bio-terrorism. They have also to make sure that the pharmaceutical companies will make a lot of money twenty years from now. This is how governments work. The poor countries are not allowed to do this. They have to follow the rules of the World Trade Organization. But the rich countries can do what they want.

4- Question: During the past decades US foreign policy in the Middle East has consistently been devoted to gaining and maintaining hegemony. But it seems to me that the Bush administration has taken a more aggressive tone, giving a new ideological posture to US foreign policy. As if in the post-September 11 world order the world is to be run by the US for the US.

Answer: I think the policies are about the same, but there are some objective changes. Today the US military advantages are enormous, much more than they have been before. Up until the 1990s US was the biggest military force, but there was what they called "mutual deterrence". Actually with the existence of Soviet Union , one country deterred the other. Since 1990 there is no such thing as deterrence. And it showed right away. US would never dare put half a million troops in the deserts of Arabia if Soviet Union was still around. Because the Americans didn't know how the Soviet regime would react. Now, once they are gone they can do what ever they want. Since then there has been no deterrent and the US military spending is just out of sight. In fact when you read about the militarization of space they are quite frank about it. Clinton's Space Command pointed out correctly by saying that : "In the past countries built navies to protect their commercial interests and now space is the new frontier so we go there to protect our commercial interests". But there is a difference. When Britain built a navy Germany could also build a navy that would counter the British navy. When the Americans move into space no other nation would be able to counter them because they have such an overwhelming power. Therefore the US will have what we call a "full spectrum dominance". And planners in Washington believe this. They believe that they have such an overwhelming military capacity that they can force anybody to do anything. This is another reason why they are so upset about September 11. It illustrated what they knew. I mean if you have read technical journals before September 11, it was well known that with contemporary technology it is possible for small groups to carry out violent activities that would be extremely destructive. In fact these technical journals pointed out that it would be very easy to assemble a nuclear weapon in a New York hotel room and blow up an area of New York. It's not beyond the capacity of some political groups. That was known, but September 11 dramatized it. And that is frightening, because it means that you may have an overwhelming predominance in power but it doesn't mean that you have the monopoly of violence. It's not like the 19th century where there was nothing that people of Congo could do to Belgium or the Indians could do to Britain. But now is different.

5- Question: Talking about the Middle East, how do you see the future of the Iranian-American relations? What could the citizens of the two countries do to ameliorate the relations between the two countries?

Answer: I think the citizens of both countries have a common interest in changing the harmful policies in their countries. Of course they deal with it as people always can, I mean by setting solidarity relations to the extent that it is possible. I think Americans and Iranians can create these relation networks through all kinds of communications such as science, culture, sports, intellectual visits, trade etc. Us policy is interesting in this case. I mean practically always foreign policy is a clear reflection of primary economic interests. But this is a case where they diverge. So if you took a look at the energy corporations in the US, most of them are in favor of reintegrating Iran into the dominant global system and have tried to do so. But the US government is walking them, which is quite unusual. Usually it mainly supports their interests in the region. I think you can imagine the reasons when you compare to other cases. There is a very important principle of statecraft which is called "establishing credibility". What that means is that everybody should be terrified of you. Mafia understands this concept very well. If you are a Mafia Don, it is not enough to have people do what you say; they have to be afraid of you. So if a storekeeper doesn't pay protection money you just don't go and get the money, you make an example of him so that everyone else understands. That's establishing credibility. If you look at the official reasons for bombing Serbia in 1999, it was to establish credibility. They call it "NATO credibility" but that means of course "US credibility". I mean that people should know that you are the boss or otherwise you get smashed. Now let us go to Iran. Iran tried in 1953 to take control of its own resources. That ended up with a coup d'etat. The Shah was a very loyal client of the US and the US loved him. There was a survey on the violations of human rights in Iran which was published by a journalist of the New York Times. Well, when you look at this report it mentions that from 1953 to 1979 the US government believed that there were no human rights violations in Iran. When Carter went to Iran in 1978 he told the Shah how impressed he was by the degree that the Iranians loved him. I mean Iran was just fine as long as it was doing what the US wanted. But in 1979 Iran broke the rules. It pulled out and turned independent and that has to be punished. Even if the reformists could succeed and wanted to re-integrate Iran back into the system they would probably be prevented from doing it. Because the US wants to make an example of Iran to show other people in the Middle East that they can't do these kind of things. You don't break ranks and disobey the orders of the master. That's credibility and I think a lot of policies are driven by that. It is hard to explain on other grounds. It's for example very counterproductive on the economic level.

6- Question: Do you analyze the "axis of evil" discourse in this same context?

Answer: The "axis of evil" discourse was a joke. The term "axis" was selected because of its connotations. It makes you think of the alliance between the Nazi Germany and Japan. But what kind of axis is there between Iran and Iraq? These two countries were in war for eight years. North Korea has less to do with either of them. North Korea was chosen in this axis mainly because it is not Moslem. It undercuts the sense that the US is only going against the Moslem world. By this clearly is no axis. As for the evil , we have it practically everywhere. As a matter of fact Al-Ahram, the Egyptian journal, had an article called "The Axis of Evil" and mentioned US, Turkey and Israel as the three countries forming the axis. At least that is an axis. These three countries are more related to each other politically than Turkey, Iraq and Iran. But the axis of evil the Bush administration is talking about is just the countries that the US feels it can attack. Iraq is high on the list. North Korea is very vulnerable, not that it is defenseless, but it's an easy target. Iran is trickier. I don't the US is going to attack Iran, but it will try to prevent it from re-integration into the global system. I think the reasons are credibility reasons. But if you take a look at the list of the "terrorist states" Cuba is high on the list. The US very recently accused Cuba of developing bio-weapons. What is that all about? I mean why not integrate back Cuba in the US system? Here is another case where the US business and most of the Americans are in favor of Cuba's re-integration. It has to do again with the case of credibility. Cuba was supposed to be an American colony and they broke out. Therefore colonies have to understand that insubordination is not tolerated. So there has been more than forty years of terror and economic embargo against Cuba. It is interesting to see how the American intellectual class can handle this issue. Up to the fall of the Berlin wall , the justification of the embargo against Cuba was that it was the outpost of the Communist Empire. It was a national security issue. When the Russians disappeared this argument couldn't work anymore. So they switched to a new argument over night. And now it's because of our love for democracy that we put pressure on Cuba. This is a remarkable tribute to the discipline of the educated classes that they can accept this shift without blanking an eye. I think the main reason here is because Cuba is independent. The other reason is because Cuba has been successful in its economic development. For the US administration this is a dangerous virus that might infect the others. Cuba is a model of independence that others look at in the region with some interest. And when a country is both independent and successful I terms that it means something to the others then it is a major threat. In fact the whole Cold War was based on that idea. You took a look at the individual instances of the Cold war, that's what it was all about. But the same was the attitude towards Russia. I mean, Russia after all was the first European colony. It's the original Third World if you go back to the 15th century. It started being colonized by Western Europe and it was extremely impoverished during the First World War. It had a high culture but that's true of many of the Third World countries. It was a typical colonial society. Well, Russia pulled out of the system and the Europeans were afraid that it would have a successful development and right to the 1960s when the economy started to be stagnant the main concern of the Western leaders was the Russian rate of development and the model that it proposed to the Third World countries. And they had to destroy it. That's Cold war. I mean for the case of Russia you can't do it overnight. It took seventy years to do it. We have the same story for countries like Guatemala and others.

7- Question: Since you mentioned the intellectuals, I am curious to know more about your idea of the intellectuals. I read somewhere that you said that the intellectual class in North America is so well indoctrinated and so well trained that they don't need a whip to obey orders. Do you mean that the intellectuals have lost their ability of critical thinking and that they have internalized the legitimacy of the system as any other ordinary citizen?

Answer: Well, the only word that I would question here is the word "lost". That would suggest that there was sometimes different. And to tell you the truth it's not just in North America. That's the tradition of intellectuals in many places. Of course it's not universal and there are exceptions. By large through history the educated sectors have been servants of power. How they get treated depends on the society where they live. In America they are not tortured, in other countries they are (including major US clients). But they are rarely treated in a very friendly fashion. People who question power and authority are said to corrupt the youth as it was said against Socrates. They are usually killed and imprisoned and if not killed they are marginalized. But the main stream intellectuals, those who are accepted and incorporated into the system are usually more respected because of the powerful power. And then in that case you kind of internalize the attitude. But I don't think it's specific to the United States.

8- Question: Do you still believe in what you said thirty years ago that: "it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies".

Answer: Yes, of course I believe in this responsibility towards truth. If one has the privileges and resources and the access to the information and opportunities you should use it for the benefit of the people of the world. It can't be simpler than that. It's not a deep point.

9- Question: Do you consider yourself as an intellectual?

Answer: I don't use the word much but yes that's what I try to do. Is to other people to judge me. Everybody claims that he/she is responsible and speaks the truth. But it's up to the others to say if they do it or not.

10- Question: In the same manner as Socrates, who tried to function as a moral agent and tried to something about the matters related to the issues of human concern?

Answer: It doesn't matter if you are an intellectual or a taxi driver or a storekeeper. We all have the same responsibility towards truth. We are all supposed to become moral agents who should try to do something about the issues of human concern. We should try to live in honesty, and if you happen to have privileges and resources and get to be called an intellectual, then you have more responsibility. Many intellectuals serve power interests without awareness, thinking they're doing an honest and dedicated work. I mean by that intellectuals could be both the main victims of the system and also its main architects.

11- Question: What has been the role of the media in making this politics of consent among the intellectuals? I believe that if intellectuals want to be true moral agents they have to fight somehow against the lies or half-truths of the media?

Answer: You have to do that, but I think many people inside the media are doing it. I think there are plenty of honest journalists around the world. Some of these journalists are more cynical about the media than I am and they try to work within the constraints. They try to work with professional integrity. They try to make changes from within. Others like myself try to give a critical analysis of the media in America and try to put pressure on the media to create alternatives. That's the way that you can increase freedom.

12- Question: But how do you that without being invited by the media and without having the possibility to talk with the American people on TV?

Answer: I give a great amount of public speeches and I write in different journals. Interviews like this are also opportunities to reach people outside America. I think in a free country like America you can find many ways of reaching people and expressing your point of view. Even in repressive countries such as Turkey and Columbia where I went recently, there are spheres were you can find an opportunity to say what you think. Of course these are once again privileged spaces. A peasant in Columbia doesn't have this privilege. He is not able to talk against globalization. But intellectuals in the Third World countries are more privileged and they can have some protection. As for the Western countries there is a lot of protection for the intellectuals. So they can find plenty of opportunities to express what they have on their minds. I find a great amount of opportunities during my travel to other countries but unfortunately I have to spend an hour each day turning down invitations.

13- Question: I was going to ask you to visit Iran. When will we have the pleasure of having you among us in Iran. I am sure that the Iranian scholars would love to have an open discussion with you?

Answer: Thank you for the invitation, but I can't promise you the exact date. It's not easy to work out such an attractive invitation with all these files I am working on. But I will come to Iran sooner or later.

... Payvand News - 6/16/02 ... --

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