Noam Chomsky: Challenging Empire

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This post originally appeared at TomDispatch

For more than half a
century, Noam Chomsky has been a relentless voice for justice, democracy, and
universal human rights. Having revolutionized modern linguistics in the 1950s,
Chomsky turned his attention to the Vietnam War in the following decade, and has
since authored dozens of books on activism, propaganda, and American foreign
and domestic policy. Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT
Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, where he has worked and taught since
1955. His latest book,
, appeared
in May 2012. Chomsky was a named an Utne Visionary in 1995.

[This piece is adapted from “Uprisings,” a
chapter in
Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New
Challenges to U.S. Empire

, Noam Chomsky’s new interview book with David Barsamian (with thanks to
the publisher, Metropolitan Books). The questions are Barsamian’s, the answers

Does the United States
still have the same level of control over the energy resources of the
Middle East as it once had?

The major energy-producing countries are
still firmly under the control of the Western-backed dictatorships. So,
actually, the progress made by the Arab Spring is limited, but it’s not
insignificant. The Western-controlled dictatorial system is eroding. In fact,
it’s been eroding for some time. So, for example, if you go back 50 years, the
energy resources — the main concern of U.S. planners — have been mostly
nationalized. There are constantly attempts to reverse that, but they have not

Take the U.S.
invasion of Iraq,
for example. To everyone except a dedicated ideologue, it was pretty obvious
that we invaded Iraq not because of our love of democracy but because it’s
maybe the second- or third-largest source of oil in the world, and is right in
the middle of the major energy-producing region. You’re not supposed to say
this. It’s considered a conspiracy theory.

The United
States was seriously defeated in Iraq by Iraqi
nationalism — mostly by nonviolent resistance. The United States could kill the
insurgents, but they couldn’t deal with half a million people demonstrating in
the streets. Step by step, Iraq
was able to dismantle the controls put in place by the occupying forces. By
November 2007, it was becoming pretty clear that it was going to be very hard
to reach U.S.
goals. And at that point, interestingly, those goals were explicitly stated. So
in November 2007 the Bush II administration came out with an official
declaration about what any future arrangement with Iraq would have to be. It had two
major requirements: one, that the United States
must be free to carry out combat operations from its military bases, which it
will retain; and two, “encouraging the flow of foreign investments to Iraq,
especially American investments.” In January 2008, Bush made this clear in one
of his signing statements. A couple of months later, in the face of Iraqi
resistance, the United
States had to give that up. Control of Iraq is now
disappearing before their eyes.

Iraq was an attempt to reinstitute by force something
like the old system of control, but it was beaten back. In general, I think, U.S. policies
remain constant, going back to the Second World War. But the capacity to
implement them is declining.

Declining because of economic weakness?

Partly because the world is just becoming
more diverse. It has more diverse power centers. At the end of the Second World
War, the United States
was absolutely at the peak of its power. It had half the world’s wealth and
every one of its competitors was seriously damaged or destroyed. It had a
position of unimaginable security and developed plans to essentially run the
world — not unrealistically at the time.

This was called “Grand Area” planning?

Yes. Right after the Second World War,
George Kennan, head of the U.S. State Department policy planning staff, and
others sketched out the details, and then they were implemented. What’s
happening now in the Middle East and North Africa, to an extent, and in South America substantially goes all the way back to the
late 1940s. The first major successful resistance to U.S. hegemony was in 1949. That’s
when an event took place, which, interestingly, is called “the loss of China.” It’s a
very interesting phrase, never challenged. There was a lot of discussion about
who is responsible for the loss of China. It became a huge domestic
issue. But it’s a very interesting phrase. You can only lose something if you
own it. It was just taken for granted: we possess China
— and if they move toward independence, we’ve lost China. Later came concerns about
“the loss of Latin America,” “the loss of the Middle East,”
“the loss of” certain countries, all based on the premise that we own the world
and anything that weakens our control is a loss to us and we wonder how to
recover it.

if you read, say, foreign policy journals or, in a farcical form, listen to the
Republican debates, they’re asking, “How do we prevent further losses?”

On the other hand, the capacity to preserve
control has sharply declined. By 1970, the world was already what was called
tripolar economically, with a U.S.-based North American industrial center, a
German-based European center, roughly comparable in size, and a Japan-based East
Asian center, which was then the most dynamic growth region in the world. Since
then, the global economic order has become much more diverse. So it’s harder to
carry out our policies, but the underlying principles have not changed much.

Take the Clinton doctrine. The Clinton
doctrine was that the United
States is entitled to resort to unilateral
force to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and
strategic resources.” That goes beyond anything that George W. Bush said. But
it was quiet and it wasn’t arrogant and abrasive, so it didn’t cause much of an
uproar. The belief in that entitlement continues right to the present. It’s
also part of the intellectual culture.

Right after the assassination of Osama bin
Laden, amid all the cheers and applause, there were a few critical comments
questioning the legality of the act. Centuries ago, there used to be something
called presumption of innocence. If you apprehend a suspect, he’s a suspect
until proven guilty. He should be brought to trial. It’s a core part of
American law. You can trace it back to Magna Carta. So there were a couple of
voices saying maybe we shouldn’t throw out the whole basis of Anglo-American
law. That led to a lot of very angry and infuriated reactions, but the most
interesting ones were, as usual, on the left liberal end of the spectrum.
Matthew Yglesias, a well-known and highly respected left liberal commentator,
wrote an article in which he ridiculed these views. He said they’re “amazingly
naive,” silly. Then he expressed the reason. He said that “one of the main
functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate
the use of deadly military force by western powers.” Of course, he didn’t mean Norway. He
meant the United States.
So the principle on which the international system is based is that the United States
is entitled to use force at will. To talk about the United States violating
international law or something like that is amazingly naive, completely silly.
Incidentally, I was the target of those remarks, and I’m happy to confess my
guilt. I do think that Magna Carta and international law are worth paying some
attention to.

I merely mention that to illustrate that in
the intellectual culture, even at what’s called the left liberal end of the
political spectrum, the core principles haven’t changed very much. But the
capacity to implement them has been sharply reduced. That’s why you get all
this talk about American decline. Take a look at the year-end issue of Foreign
, the main
establishment journal. Its big front-page cover asks, in bold face, “Is America
Over?” It’s a standard complaint of those who believe they should have
everything. If you believe you should have everything and anything gets away
from you, it’s a tragedy, the world is collapsing. So is America over? A
long time ago we “lost” China,
we’ve lost Southeast Asia, we’ve lost South America.
Maybe we’ll lose the Middle East and North
African countries. Is America
over? It’s a kind of paranoia, but it’s the paranoia of the superrich and the
superpowerful. If you don’t have everything, it’s a disaster.

The New York
Times describes the “defining policy quandary of the Arab Spring: how to square
contradictory American impulses that include support for democratic change, a
desire for stability, and wariness of Islamists who have become a potent
political force.” The
Times identifies three U.S.
goals. What do you make of them?

Two of them are accurate. The United States
is in favor of stability. But you have to remember what stability means.
Stability means conformity to U.S.
orders. So, for example, one of the charges against Iran,
the big foreign policy threat, is that it is destabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. How? By trying to
expand its influence into neighboring countries. On the other hand, we
“stabilize” countries when we invade them and destroy them.

I’ve occasionally quoted one of my favorite
illustrations of this, which is from a well-known, very good liberal foreign
policy analyst, James Chace, a former editor of Foreign Affairs. Writing about the overthrow of the
Salvador Allende regime and the imposition of the dictatorship of Augusto
Pinochet in 1973, he said that we had to “destabilize” Chile in the
interests of “stability.” That’s not perceived to be a contradiction — and it
isn’t. We had to destroy the parliamentary system in order to gain stability,
meaning that they do what we say. So yes, we are in favor of stability in this
technical sense.

Concern about political Islam is just like
concern about any independent development. Anything that’s independent you have
to have concern about because it might undermine you. In fact, it’s a little
ironic, because traditionally the United States
and Britain
have by and large strongly supported radical Islamic fundamentalism, not
political Islam, as a force to block secular nationalism, the real concern. So,
for example, Saudi Arabia
is the most extreme fundamentalist state in the world, a radical Islamic state.
It has a missionary zeal, is spreading radical Islam to Pakistan,
funding terror. But it’s the bastion of U.S. and British policy. They’ve
consistently supported it against the threat of secular nationalism from Gamal
Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Abd
al-Karim Qasim’s Iraq,
among many others. But they don’t like political Islam because it might become

The first of the three points, our yearning
for democracy, that’s about on the level of Joseph Stalin talking about the
Russian commitment to freedom, democracy, and liberty for the world. It’s the
kind of statement you laugh about when you hear it from commissars or Iranian
clerics, but you nod politely and maybe even with awe when you hear it from
their Western counterparts.

If you look at the record, the yearning for
democracy is a bad joke. That’s even recognized by leading scholars, though
they don’t put it this way. One of the major scholars on so-called democracy
promotion is Thomas Carothers, who is pretty conservative and highly regarded
— a neo-Reaganite, not a flaming liberal. He worked in Reagan’s State
Department and has several books reviewing the course of democracy promotion,
which he takes very seriously. He says, yes, this is a deep-seated American
ideal, but it has a funny history. The history is that every U.S.
administration is “schizophrenic.” They support democracy only if it conforms
to certain strategic and economic interests. He describes this as a strange
pathology, as if the United
States needed psychiatric treatment or
something. Of course, there’s another interpretation, but one that can’t come
to mind if you’re a well-educated, properly behaved intellectual.

Within several months of the toppling of [President Hosni] Mubarak in Egypt, he was
in the dock facing criminal charges and prosecution. It’s inconceivable that U.S. leaders will ever be held to account for
their crimes in Iraq
or beyond. Is that going to change anytime soon?

That’s basically the Yglesias principle:
the very foundation of the international order is that the United States
has the right to use violence at will. So how can you charge anybody?

And no one else has that right.

Of course not. Well, maybe our clients do.
If Israel invades Lebanon and
kills a thousand people and destroys half the country, okay, that’s all right.
It’s interesting. Barack Obama was a senator before he was president. He didn’t
do much as a senator, but he did a couple of things, including one he was
particularly proud of. In fact, if you looked at his website before the
primaries, he highlighted the fact that, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon
in 2006, he cosponsored a Senate resolution demanding that the United States do
nothing to impede Israel’s military actions until they had achieved their
objectives and censuring Iran and Syria because they were supporting resistance
to Israel’s destruction of southern Lebanon, incidentally, for the fifth time
in 25 years. So they inherit the right. Other clients do, too.

But the rights really reside in Washington. That’s what
it means to own the world. It’s like the air you breathe. You can’t question
it. The main founder of contemporary IR [international relations] theory, Hans
Morgenthau, was really quite a decent person, one of the very few political
scientists and international affairs specialists to criticize the Vietnam War
on moral, not tactical, grounds. Very rare. He wrote a book called The Purpose
of American Politics
. You already know what’s coming. Other countries don’t have purposes. The
purpose of America,
on the other hand, is “transcendent”: to bring freedom and justice to the rest
of the world. But he’s a good scholar, like Carothers. So he went through the
record. He said, when you study the record, it looks as if the United States
hasn’t lived up to its transcendent purpose. But then he says, to criticize our
transcendent purpose “is to fall into the error of atheism, which denies the
validity of religion on similar grounds” — which is a good comparison. It’s a
deeply entrenched religious belief. It’s so deep that it’s going to be hard to
disentangle it. And if anyone questions that, it leads to near hysteria and
often to charges of anti-Americanism or “hating America” — interesting concepts
that don’t exist in democratic societies, only in totalitarian societies and
here, where they’re just taken for granted.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of
Linguistics and Philosophy. A

TomDispatch regular

, he is the author
of numerous best-selling political works, including recently

Hopes and Prospects
Making the Future. This piece
is adapted from the chapter “Uprisings” in his newest book (with interviewer
David Barsamian),

Power Systems:
Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S.

(The American
Empire Project
, Metropolitan Books).

Excerpted from Power Systems:
Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S.
published this month by Metropolitan Books,
an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2013 by Noam Chomsky
and David Barsamian. All rights reserved.

Image of Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square demanding a free Palestine by Gigi Ibrahim, licensed under Creative Commons.

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