Imperial Disappointments

Chomsky mural. Philadelphia, 2011.

Noam Chomsky, the celebrated academic and political commentator, is perhaps the most famous left-wing public intellectual alive. Since rising to widespread prominence as a fierce critic of the Vietnam War, he has developed into something of an American Solzhenitsyn: a dissident bitterly denounced at home, but admired internationally (thankfully without the gulags.)

While I am by no means uncritical of Chomsky’s work, I do think that no one can rival him in producing cogent criticisms of Western foreign policy. Especially criticisms that underline, with an authority borne of unimpeachable moral clarity, the magnitude of the crimes perpetrated by Washington and its foreign partners. It is for this reason that he is respected and admired by millions of people around the world. His political writing is morally serious, and consistent, always being sure to emphasize the ethics of political actions and their human consequences rather than simply ideology.

The following interview-of-sorts with Chomsky was the product of repeated requests to speak to him on behalf of Souciant, stretching over several months. He was always good enough to reply politely to my pestering emails, although his brief responses usually ran something along the lines of “appreciate the offer, unfortunately fully booked far into the near future”- and more lately, “submerged in work, may just about be possible if we can work out something creative.”

I managed to get his agreement on a collection from the years of email correspondence that mainly related to the Middle East, with some extra discussions concerning his detractors. I sent him the quotes I would use, and he agreed. Below is the result of this assemblage. All of it, I am pleased to say, is still burningly relevant. The eleventh anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has passed us by with little coverage, and the unbearable situation in Syria continues to occupy media attention. This interview is also published during new so-called Middle East peace talks in Israel and the Palestinian territories, ones which are seen as shambolic and utterly hopeless.

I ended with a question that many of his fiercest critics (also known as Christopher Hitchens fans) still hold out against Chomsky. Wait until you see it.

Hugo and Noam stencil. Memphis, 2006.
Hugo and Noam stencil. Memphis, 2006.

Dear Noam- please excuse the devils advocate question- but the key argument from the influential Nick Cohen-Christopher Hitchens bloc, as I am certain you’re familiar with, is that if Saddam had been left in power, he would have continued to cause immense misery to Iraqis, and the sanctions regime would have dragged on, killing more innocent people; moreover, a large number of Iraqis welcomed the removal of Saddam Hussein initially.

I wanted to ask you how you would respond to that view- and if you advocated the removal of Saddam Hussein at any point? If so, what would have been the best route to remove his regime from power?

Chomsky: Happy to respond to it.  In fact, I already did, 10 years ago, in my book Hegemony or Survival, discussing the work of Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, the distinguished international diplomats who ran the “Oil-for-Food” program and resigned in protest (successively) because both regarded it as “genocidal.” I pointed out further that “as Halliday, von Sponeck, and others had discussed for years, the sanctions devastated the population, while strengthening Saddam Hussein and his clique, also increasing the dependency of the population on the tyrant for survival.” They also went on to suggest that if the vicious western assault on the civilian population was relaxed, and civil society could rebuild itself instead of being compelled to rely on the tyrant for survival, Iraqis would take care of their own problems.

In short, Saddam might well have gone the way of a series of other vicious tyrants supported by the US and its allies until the last moment of their bloody rule: Somoza, Duvalier, Marcos, Suharto, Ceausescu (a favorite of the US-UK), and quite a few others.  It’s not certain, of course, but unless Iraqis were at least given a chance to overthrow the tyrant, murderous aggressors like the US and UK had no right to undertake the task – and we should hardly have been surprised at the way they carried it out.

The absurdity and deep immorality of the claim aside, it’s all quite academic.  As Hitchens, Cohen, etc., knew quite well, Bush and Blair insistently emphasized “the single question”: will Saddam end his WMD programs?  (and when the wrong answer emerged to that question, they turned to their passionate commitment to democracy.)  The concern of the US-UK for the welfare of Iraqis is well illustrated by the “genocidal” sanctions policies – and the virtual suppression of the testimony of Halliday and van Sponeck (how many reviews have you seen the UK of his detailed and devastating study A Different Kind of War?) – not to speak of their Iraqi campaign and their record elsewhere.

It would have been more rational and moral to urge Iran to invade to overthrow Saddam and provide them with the wherewithal to do it – not of course that I’m advocating that.

Ultimately, some people still argue that Iraq is better off, and Iraqis are better off without Saddam’s tyranny, despite everything. Do you agree?

Chomsky: They would be even better off without Saddam’s tyranny, and also without hundreds of thousands of deaths and some 4 million displaced (half refugees), incitement of a vicious Sunni-Shiite conflict that continues to tear the country apart and has spread throughout the region, such total destruction of a rich cultural legacy that many Iraqi intellectuals compare it to the Mongol invasions, etc.

That aside, it makes not the slightest difference whether or not I agree. It’s Iraqi opinion that counts – and the idea proposed is itself so outrageous that it’s hard to answer politely.  Maybe the UK should also invade Israel, to liberate millions of Palestinians and also remove what the Arab countries regard as the greatest threat to their existence, including a nuclear weapons threat.  And it’s easy to go on.

What is the likelihood of a ‘just and lasting peace’ being achieved between Israelis and Palestinians?

Chomsky: There is no likelihood until the US abandons its unilateral rejectionism, which, for over 35 years, has been the main barrier to the international consensus on a diplomatic settlement, with very brief and temporary exceptions.  No time now to review the record once again.

What are your thoughts on the one-state as opposed to the two state solution?

Chomsky: They are no alternatives.  I have advocated, a binational (“one-state”) settlement for 70 years, often in print, but I stress “advocate.” Advocacy goes beyond mere proposal by sketching out a path from here to there. Before the mid-1970s, when I wrote about this extensively, it was possible to advocate a fairly direct path.  Since then, the only serious form of advocacy I know of proceeds in stages, beginning with the international consensus.  I should add that I don’t regard the borders imposed by imperial power as sacrosanct, and believe we should be aspiring to a regional “no state solution” — which is about as feasible as a single state, and is not an idle dream.

Chomsky freedom fighters wall. Atlanta, 2006.
Chomsky freedom fighters wall. Atlanta, 2006.

How central to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the arms industry?

Chomsky: One of the major domestic US lobbies supporting US rejectionism (“support for Israel,” in common terminology) is the military industry, for whom the conflict is a double bonanza.  First, they provide advanced high-tech armaments to Israel (at the taxpayer’s expense) and can even have them tested against defenseless targets.  Second, they can sell huge quantities of second-level equipment to the Gulf states.  All that is happening right now.  Furthermore, their interactions with Israel’s high-tech military industry are very close and for them, profitable.

What are your views on the allocation of resources (e.g. Water) to Palestinians? 

Chomsky: It is a sick joke. Simply look at the numbers.

What do you think about the refusal of Lebanon and Syria to ‘take in’ the Palestinians as a part of their own countries?

Chomsky: They should give Palestinians rights and decent conditions, but their responsibility for the plight of the refugees is far less than ours.  The same is true, even more obviously, of the millions of refugees who fled Iraq after the US-UK invasion.  The hypocrisy of Western propaganda charges against Arab states is quite stunning, sometimes almost breathtaking.  Consider the present moment, when France is expelling Europeans to a miserable fate, and not just Europeans, but communities who were major victims of the Holocaust (Roma).

Do you think racism  (in particular, mutually reinforcing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia) is an active player in the troubles of the region)?

Chomsky: Racism is a factor.  European anti-Semitism is, of course, a major factor in the original Zionist project and establishment of a Jewish state. Disdain for colonized people is another factor, so deeply rooted in European culture that it is barely noticed, particularly in settler-colonial societies like the US.  In more recent years, “Islamophobia” has contributed further to these pathologies, and less significantly, the anti-Semitism that has been aroused in the Arab and Muslim worlds in reaction to the West’s support for Israel, as a form of cynical absolution for Europe’s monstrous crimes.

What do you think of the sincerity of Netanyahu, Abbas and the like in desiring peace?

Chomsky: I don’t think it is the right question.  Everyone sincerely desires peace, even Hitler.  The question is: on what terms?

A final question

I saw that you said to an audience at (I think) the Syracuse peace council a few years back that one of Christopher Hitchens’ main claims about you was that you said “that Clinton’s bombing in Sudan is worse then 9/11.” I remember that whole thing but you follow that statement up with this:

“Now you can check back and see what I said, it’s a total fabrication. But there is something much more interesting, there are liars and there are brazen liars. There is one person who actually did say that the bombing in Sudan was much worse then 9/11- Christopher Hitchens. You can find it, I’ve quoted it.”

I’d be really keen to find that quote of his, especially as he claimed it never existed. Would you be able to tell me where it was he said this, as you said you quoted it?

Chomsky: See [attached], for the full reference, to his article in The Nation.

[The attachment is from Hegemony or Survival.]

“The conclusions extend far beyond these cases, including even such minor escapades (by US-UK standards) as Clinton’s bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, leading to “several tens of thousands” of deaths according to the only reputable estimates we have, conclusions consistent with the immediate assessments of knowledgeable observers.

Technically, this was not international terrorism, only a crime that would elicit vast outrage if the target were the US, Israel, or some other “worthy victim,” and retaliation on a scale that one hesitates to imagine, which would furthermore be acclaimed as a paradigm example of “just war.” The principle of proportionality therefore entails that Sudan had every right to carry out massive terror in retaliation.  The conclusion is strengthened if we adopt the more extreme view that Clinton’s missile attack had “appalling consequences for the economy and society” of Sudan, so that the atrocity was much worse than the crimes of 9-11, which were appalling enough, but did not have such consequences.*”

I have preserved the relevant footnote, which deserves to be  quoted in full [underlining added]:

*Christopher Hitchens, The Nation, June 10, 2002.  Ian Buruma dismisses the idea that the strike was worse than 9-11 as “plain silly.” He attributes this not to Hitchens, who takes this position (perhaps unwittingly), but to me; with no citation, because none exists, in fact no comparison at all apart from a few words of mine pointing out that the number of casualties may have been similar.  The comment, which has spawned the usual stream of gossip, is perhaps “silly” in that it underestimated Clinton’s crime by perhaps a factor of 10.

Buruma,  review of Paul Berman, Terror and LiberalismNew York Review, May 1, 2003.  Buruma may be relying on the book he is reviewing, a most remarkable collection of fabrications as we learn from reviews concerned with fact; for a sample, see George Scialabba, “Clash of Visualizations,” The Nation,  April 28, 2003.”


Photographs courtesy of Rusty Tanton, Eric Lin, and MTSOfan. Published with a Creative Commons License.

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