Noam Chomsky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Activism, Anarchism, and Power: Conversation with Noam Chomsky, Linguist and Political Activist; 3/22/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The U.S. Role in the World

When one reads your arguments, what you're laying out is fairly simple, namely, if I can paraphrase, that if you're suddenly calling a Iraq a rogue state in the nineties, well, what were you calling it in the eighties, and were they doing the same thing, and at that time, were you helping them do it? And this is your critique of U.S. foreign policy.

If George Bush tells us, like he did last week, and Tony Blair tells us, in this case, that "We can't let Saddam Hussein survive because he's the most evil man in history, he even used chemical weapons against his own people," I agree that far. But it gives hypocrisy a bad name to stop there. You have to add, "Yes, he used chemical weapons against his own people, with the support of Daddy Bush, who continued to support him right past that, knowing what he was doing; who helped him develop weapons of mass destruction. Welcomed him as a friend and ally, gave him lavish aid, after all these crimes."book cover Unless you add that, it's just, like I say, giving hypocrisy a bad name. Well, nobody says that. You can read the commentary and the learned opinion and leading figures, and they just stop, "He used chemical weapons against his own people."

Now, this is not difficult to understand, I think you can explain this to children in school. It takes major efforts for the educated classes to prevent people from knowing these things. That takes dedication. It would be a lot easier to tell the truth. This is one example. It's a characteristic example.

In the late 1990s there was a huge chorus of self-adulation in the West about how we're entering a new age of history, in which the enlightened states are bringing humanitarian ideals to the world, for the first time in history, following principles and values. And the proof of it is we're bombing Serbia. Okay? Well, at the very same moment, the same people were actively supporting terrorist atrocities which went way beyond anything charged to Milosevic in Kosovo. In fact, I just happened to come back from the site of one of them, southeastern Turkey, where massive atrocities were going on.

Where the Turkish government is committing atrocities against the Kurdish people.

Yes, that's true, but the way I would put it is the U.S. government is committing atrocities ...

By providing aid ...

By providing virtually 80 percent of the arms, in an increasing flow as atrocities increased; providing support, blocking criticism. The press is helping by not reporting it. And, in fact, even more amazingly, Turkey is praised here as a model for opposing terrorism, namely by carrying out some of the worst terrorist atrocities of the late 1990s with our assistance. Well, you know, that's an impressive contribution of the educated culture. It takes effort to do this sort of thing. And it's not hard to explain; in fact, I could explain it in two minutes, and even give you the documentation if you want.

If we were the Council of Foreign Relations, which we're not, the argument would be made, "Well, Turkey has to fit into a larger strategic view of the world, in which they are a modernizing secular state with an Islamic population." What would your answer be to that?

So, therefore, we should help them drive two to three million out of their homes, destroy thousands of villages, and kill 50,000 people ... ?

No, I won't go there. Yeah ...

Well, that's the question. In fact, I think we're harming Turkey by doing this. We're supporting the most reactionary strains in Turkey. Like I say, I was just there, talking about these things. Popular support for opposing the military-run regime is overwhelming. We're supporting the military-run regime. We're preventing its modernization and development. In fact, that's happening throughout much of the world. But even if it were true that we were helping modernization, that in no sense justifies participation in some of the worst acts of terror or worse. I don't know if it is worse; parallel -- praising them as a model for countering terror by carrying out massive terror.

You can generalize this. It only takes, say, to go somewhere else: Indonesia. When Indonesia was following an independent path in the 1950s and the early sixties, the U.S. strongly opposed, actually tried to break up Indonesia in 1958. Finally, a military coup took place with the assistance of the United States in 1965. The coup massacred a couple hundred thousand ... maybe a million people, nobody knows -- mostly landless peasants. It was greeted here with complete unconstrained euphoria. It was described accurately. So The New York Times: "a staggering blood bath." Time magazine: "boiling blood bath." And praise. It was praised because what they called the Indonesian moderates, namely, the ones who carried out the massacre, were turning the country into a U.S. client state. Well, up and from then, '65 till '98, the Indonesian leader, Suharto, one of the worst -- kind of like Saddam Hussein, one of the worst criminals of the modern age -- was lavishly praised and supported as a wonderful person. The Clinton administration called him, "Our kind of guy," because he was serving U.S. interests, while carrying out huge massacres and compiling one of the worst records of atrocities in the world.

What happened to that in history? Well, you know, it's history, but it's not what you teach people in high school, as you should in a free country. That's the task of the intellectuals: be careful to be sure that nobody understands what's going on. That's a major task.

You believe that there are two kinds of intellectuals -- one, the kinds who serve power and are rewarded, and the others are those who stand outside, who basically call a spade a spade.

Yes, we all agree with that when we're talking about enemies. So when we're talking about the Soviet Union, we all agree that there was a difference between the commissars and the dissidents. The commissars were the guys inside who were propagating state propaganda, and the dissidents were a very small group on the fringe, who were trying to call a spade a spade. And we honor the dissidents and we condemn the commissars.

Because they were doing it among our adversaries.

Yes. When we turn around at home, it's the opposite: we honor the commissars and we condemn the dissidents. And furthermore, this goes right through history. Go back to classical Greece and the Bible. Who drank the hemlock in classical Greece? Was it a commissar or a dissident? When we you go to, say, the Bible, you read the biblical record, there are people called prophets. Prophet just means intellectual. They were people giving geopolitical analysis, moral lessons, that sort of thing. We call them intellectuals today. There were the people we honor as prophets, there were the people we condemn as false prophets. But if you look at the biblical record, at the time, it was the other way around. The flatterers of the Court of King Ahab were the ones who were honored. The ones we call prophets were driven into the desert and imprisoned. Yeah, that's the way it's been throughout history. And, understandably. Power does not like to be undermined.

An important point here that I want to bring out is you're comparing our acting against Serbia at a time when we were not doing anything about East Timor, Indonesia, or a number of other places ...

Well, it's not that we're not doing anything ...

Well, we're doing the wrong thing.

We're doing something about it: we're intensifying the atrocities.

But the really interesting thing is that part of the self-deception which is created by the media. We forget what we're doing in one place, where it would be very easy to do something about it, namely stopping the military aid; whereas, in other areas, for example, Serbia, well, if you start bombing, what are the consequences for innocent people?

That's another question. This is independent of what we should have done in Kosovo. You can ask that, but what it does show is that whatever we did, it's not humanitarian.book cover You just take a look at everything else that's going on, and you see that. So what should we have done in Kosovo? Well, here you have to look at the record, and the record is interesting, and it's suppressed by the intellectuals. There's a massive literature about it, and if you look through that literature, you'll notice that something is systematically omitted, namely, the actual record of what was happening. We have a voluminous record from the State Department and from the British Defense System, from NATO, from the UN. As far as I'm aware, there's only one book in print that reviews that record: mine. Of course, the book is condemned because it reviews the record. What the record shows is unequivocal: right up to shortly before the bombing, the British, who were the most hawkish element in the coalition, internally (now it's released, then it was internal) regarded the guerrillas as the main source of atrocities. This is after the Racak [Kosovo] massacre.

This would be the Albanian guerrillas ...

Yes, [the British] said they were the main source of the atrocities. What they were trying to do was to elicit a disproportionate Serbian response, which they did, which would then bring in the West. Now, I don't personally believe that, but that's the British.

We know that right up until the bombing, nothing much changed. It was an ugly place -- I mean, these are not nice guys. The Serbian occupiers were doing vicious things -- not on the level of what we were doing in other places, but bad enough. But nothing changed up till the bombing. When the bombing was undertaken, it was on the expectation that it would elicit atrocities. Not surprising -- we start bombing people, they react. And it did. When you look at the Milosevic's trial, it's for crimes committed after the bombing, and one exception, but ...

The bombing, being by NATO.

By NATO. After the bombing, with an invasion threat, exactly as anticipated, the atrocities mounted and they started expelling the population. Those are crimes, undoubtedly. This guy [Milosevic] is a major criminal. But the crimes happened to be provoked by the NATO bombing. Now what you read is, "Well, we had to bomb to return the Albanians to their homes." Yeah, except that they were driven out of their homes after the bombing. I mean, there were some displaced before, but the huge expulsion and everything was after the bombing. Before that, the West saw it as guerrillas trying to elicit atrocities -- responses and responses. That's the description. You may still decide it was the right thing or the wrong thing, but unless you at least look at the facts, you're not even in the real world.

For example, a fact which we should look at, we can ask, "Was there an alternative to violence? Were there diplomatic alternatives?" Well, you can look back and you see -- in fact, I wrote at the time that it looked like there were diplomatic alternatives. Serbia had a position and NATO had a position. If you actually look at the result after seventy-eight days of bombing, it's a compromise between those two positions. NATO gave up its most extreme demands, the Serbs gave up their most extreme demands, and there was a kind of a compromise. Could that have been reached without the bombing and the atrocities? Well, a good case could be made that it could have been. But, remember, the burden of proof is on those who say you have to bomb. They try to put the burden of proof on others. They can't. It's the ones who use violence who have the burden of proof.

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