By Christopher Cramer
Since the start of the Vietnam War, Noam Chomsky, an emeritus Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics at MIT, has become increasingly popular with time.
By 1992, the Arts and Humanities Citation Index declared him the most cited living person and the eighth most cited person of all time.
Chomsky’s radical views and critiques of U.S. policy are at their height in both popularity and reach during what he calls, “one of the worst military disasters in history,” i.e., the Iraq War.
On May 1, I was granted the opportunity to interview Chomsky about the Iraq war, the Kent State shootings and his advice to students. The transcript is as follows.
What’s your assessment of the situation in Iraq?
For Iraqis, it’s a horrible disaster. Actually, there’s another report that just came out that studies child mortality in children under five. Iraq – it’s more than doubled since 1990. That’s the greatest drop known in history. It’s now at the level of Sub-Sahara Africa. And the reason they start at 1990 is because of something we don’t like to talk about. The sanctions from 1990 up to the war were maybe even more destructive than the war. They were so destructive they attacked the population. They didn’t harm Saddam Hussein, they probably helped him.
But by 1995 or 1996, they were so awful that the United Nations, which means the U.S. and Britain, basically, had to institute what they call an “Oil for Food Program” to try to alleviate the effect of the sanctions. The Oil for Food Program allowed Iraq to use some of its oil revenue for social need – needs of the population. It was considered a great humanitarian gesture. The director of the Oil for Food Program was Denis Halliday, who was a distinguished diplomat. He resigned in protest after two years, charging that they were genocidal. He was replaced by another distinguished international diplomat, Hans von Sponeck, who, a few years later, also retired on the grounds that they violated the genocide convention. They may have killed a million people and just destroyed the society. So, the increase in infant mortality actually goes back to 1990, and it’s a reflection of what happened in the whole society.
The war, of course, has just exasperated it. It’s also created sectarian tensions; there was some conflict in the past, but it didn’t really exist. In fact, up to two or three years ago, Iraqis were confident there would never be sectarian violence. There’s too much intermingling of the populations, intermarriage and so on. By now, it’s just a total disaster. I think about 70 percent of Iraqis think the presence of U.S. forces increases the level of violence. That figure is misleading because it includes the Kurds, who don’t care; there’s no fighting there. If you look at Arab Iraqis, it’s much higher. That’s why they want the United States out. It’s one of the worst disasters in military history right on top of a sanctions regime, which was called genocidal.
What do you think the reasons were for the decision to invade the country – Iraq?
The reasons are transparent. It’s just that the doctrinal controls in the U.S. are so strong you’re not allowed to mention them. Just ask yourself: If Iraq’s main exports were asparagus and tomatoes and the energy producing region in the world were the South Pacific, do you think the United Stated would invade it? It’s obvious. We’re not allowed to talk about it because we live in a deeply indoctrinated society, and you have to follow the party line. So, we’re not allowed to point out that the U.S. invaded Iraq because it has the second largest oil reserves in the world, and they’re very easily accessed – no permafrost, just stick a pipe in the ground. And it’s right at the world’s major energy producing region. The same reason the U.S. is trying very hard to withdraw.
You once said, not too long ago actually, that “we should be more concerned with the framework behind the decisions that are made.” So, I’m curious about the structural or institutional frameworks that allowed this decision to be made. That is, what are the values of the system and who’s in control of the system?
Well, first of all, control over Middle East oil – notice I stress control, not access – control over Middle East oil has been a dominant theme over U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War. Before that, it was a dominant theme of British foreign policy. After the Second World War, the U.S. more or less took over global management from Britain and for obvious reasons. The State Department explained them frankly. They said Middle East energy reserves are the “most stupendous source of strategic power” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” It’s strategically the most important area in the world, Eisenhower pointed out. And the reason is it controls – it has most of the world’s energy reserves, about two thirds. If you control that, it’s a lever of world control, and policy has been rammed toward that ever since.
Then come special factors, like, I don’t think another administration would have invaded Iraq. I mean, the Clinton administration was trying to strangle Iraqis and did a horrible job of it. But whether they would invade it is another question. The group in power in Washington (D.C.), which is a small clique, happens to be at the reactionary, ultra reactionary, extreme of a spectrum of opinion. It’s a narrow spectrum but they are way out at the extreme, which is also in domestic policies. Like, they have a deeply authoritarian streak. That’s called the unitary executive. They’re trying to amass centralized power in the executive branch, diminishing other branches of government, plowing ahead no matter what anybody wants. I mean, you can see in the (Attorney General Alberto) Gonzales flack today; it’s mostly about executive power. So, there’s a highly authoritarian streak. They think the U.S. should effectively rule the world by force and have said so. So, they took an extreme position on the spectrum.
With regard to the general principle of controlling Mid East oil, there’s very little deviation. And it’s obvious why. In fact, it was pointed out. When George Kennan, when he was a top planner back in the ’40s, pointed out that if the United States controls Middle East oil, we have a veto power over what others do.
But how was the ability granted for them to do this? How could nobody stop this? I guess that’s what I’m trying to get to.
Well, here we get to another institutional problem. And that has to do with a serious problem of American democracy. In the United States, there’s a huge “democratic deficit,” the term we use about other countries. That means a tremendous gap between public opinion and policy. And it shows up on all sorts of issues – domestic and international. So, public opinion barely influences policy, only very marginally.
I mean, there’s a number of studies I’ve written about. There’s a study by two well-known political scientists, Ben Page and Marshall Bouton, called “The Foreign Policy Disconnect.” I mean, I take a stronger position on it than they do. But what their data shows is what we also find in domestic policy – that the government just doesn’t represent the population. It represents specific centers of mostly economic power within the society, and then it has state interests, which are separate. But the population is kind of irrelevant.
For example, take Iraq. I mean, the public was whipped up in fear by a huge propaganda campaign beginning in 2002, and by the time of the invasion, Americans were trembling in fear that “Saddam Hussein is going to attack us,” and “He’s responsible for 9/11,” “The next thing we’ll see will be a mushroom cloud over New York,” and so on. The U.S. population was driven totally off the spectrum of international opinion. I mean, it’s kind of striking to compare U.S. opinion with opinion in the region – they hated Saddam Hussein, like Kuwait, Iran. He invaded them. Of course they wanted to get rid of him, tear him limb from limb. But they weren’t afraid of him. I mean, they knew that Iraq was, largely as a result of the sanctions and the first war, just a shell. You know, it was held together by scotch tape, and it had no power. So, they weren’t afraid of him; they’d be delighted to see him destroyed. But only in the United States was there real fear. So, the population was driven into a frenzy of fear just by government/media propaganda – uncritical media reporting and propaganda – and that obviously had an effect.
However, by April 2003, a month after the invasion, most of the public – I think about two thirds or so – wanted Iraqi affairs to be handed over to the United Nations. You know, they should take care of economic reconstruction, political transition, other security issues. But it’s simply not reflected in policy just as – (sic) last election is a good example. The population essentially voted for withdraw, and the government responded by escalation. And it’s not just Iraq. It’s issue after issue, and it’s no longer bipartisan.
So, that’s a deep institutional problem in the United States. We have formal democratic institutions, maybe the best in the world, but they’re very dysfunctional. Furthermore, the public knows it. That’s why we don’t have any faith in our institutions. And it’s everything.
Kind of going along with this topic of structural and institutional frameworks, you once wrote that, “At every stage of history, our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified, in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to – rather than alleviate – material and cultural deficit.”
What exactly do you think those forms of authority and oppression are in contemporary society?
Well, there are two main categories and there are a lot of other ones. The main categories are corporate power and state power. They are closely interlinked. I mean, the state and business world are very closely interlinked and they effectively design and run the economy and the society, and I don’t think that those structures of power have much, if any, legitimacy. There’s plenty of others. I mean, there’s racism, patriarchy, all kinds of other things. But those are the core issues.
I think these are illegitimate structures. They should not have been permitted in the first place. Corporations in the modern sense are state-created institutions, state-protected institutions. They have been conferred rights that go way beyond the rights of individuals. And I think they have far too much power. I should say that the public overwhelmingly agrees. A huge amount of the public agrees that what they call “business” has far too much influence over policy and has for a long time. And that extends through a whole range of policies. Health care is an example. The insurance industry and pharmaceutical industry are powerful enough so that they overwhelm Congress and the Executive, and it doesn’t matter what the public wants.
You say, ‘many times, perhaps every time that power is challenged, those with power react to defend their power’ sometimes subtly, like the educational systems, and sometimes more crudely, like COINTELLPRO or the Haymarket affair.
That’s a very interesting aspect of the doctrinal system in the United States. Today is May 1st. May 1st in the world is commemorated as a day of support for the American workers for an eight-hour day and also in memory of the Haymarket massacre, almost everywhere in the world, except one country: the United States. Do a poll in the United States – almost nobody knows what it is. Everywhere else, they know what it is. I mean, it’s pretty amazing that this was 1886, and still today, our doctrinal system is so restricted that we can not recognize that today, May 1st, is a day devoted to the memory of the struggles of American workers and their massacre by security forces.
Do you think that the Kent State shootings are part of that lineage, or is it something else – a freak accident or an anomaly?
It’s both. I mean, by the time of the Kent State shootings, the government no longer really had the force to coerce people by violence the way it had in the past. So, for example, American labor history is very violent, much more so than other industrial countries. And it went on to the late ’30s – strikers were still being murdered by security forces. But after the New Deal and World War II, and mildly socially democratic policies of the ’50s and ’60s, the government had lost the power to coerce. Kent State was a throwback to an earlier era, and in that sense, an anomaly. But it did have roots. COINTELLPRO, for example, was probably one of the worst periods of U.S. history, much worse than oppression today. It did, in fact, include a political assassination. It’s interesting that that is suppressed too. Not many people would remember the name Fred Hampton. He was murdered by an FBI arranged police killing not long before Kent State.
What advice do you have for students, how ought they react?
I’d invert it. I mean, I look up to them. Young people have done a tremendous number of things. I mean, this is now a much more civilized country than it was say, 40 years ago. And a lot of that is the activities of young people. Starting in the ’60s, but right up into the present, it’s just changed things. It has changed our attitudes toward human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, the environment, aggression, international solidarity. You know, it’s just a radically different society. I’m sure you see it at Kent State; I certainly see it at MIT. If you’d take a walk through the halls of MIT today – what you would have seen 50 years ago, when I got here, was white males, well-dressed, obedient, deferential. Take a look today – it’s completely different. That’s a sign of the civilizing effect of mostly young people. Actually there’s a real good book that just came out about that by Mike Albert, who was a student here. It’s called Remembering Tomorrow. It’s a memoir. He was a student in the ’60s – one of a very small group of students, like 10 or 15, who just transformed this place, totally. He ended up getting elected student body president, on a very radical program. He ended up getting kicked out, naturally, but went on to do really good things.
… Well, a lot of that is activism by young people. I mean, especially college students are at a stage in their life in which they’re uniquely free. I mean, you’re sort of out of parental control more or less. You’re not yet burdened by the necessities of subordinating yourself outside institutions. Like, you have to work in a law office to make money to put food on the table, or whatever it is. Or be a truck driver. That’s a free period.
That’s one of the reasons, I think, why student activism has been so significant. I mean, take say, the civil rights movement – it’s a major movement. A lot of it started by black students at colleges in the south who sat in at lunch counters, rode freedom buses. It was pretty brutal; a lot of them got killed. It wasn’t easy, but they did it. And they lead to a major change in American society.
Same with most popular movements – that’s the way change takes place. We happen to have, by now – thanks to our predecessors – a real legacy of freedom and opportunity. So you don’t have to feel fear, repression, in the ways that you did in the past. It gives you a lot more space, and a lot of privilege, and a lot of choice. In fact, the range of choices is somehow disempowering.
I constantly get questions in letters and talks -“What can I do?” Part of the reasons for the questions is that there are too many opportunities. You go to, say, the poor peasants of southern Columbia, they don’t ask what to do – they know exactly what to do because they don’t have a lot of choices. If you’re a college student in the United States, you’ve a got a rich array of opportunities, and that does make people feel sort of helpless because there’s no obvious thing to do.
There’s another factor to overcome, and that is a reflection of privilege. Children now grow up to expect the kind of quick gratification and that comes from privilege. You know, you pretty much always got what you wanted, and you want to get it quickly. So, the sense that you really have to put in hard, dedicated work is sort of lost. To caricature it, it’s an attitude of, “I went to a demonstration, and the war is still going on, so it’s hopeless.” Well, that’s not the way it works. You have to keep at it, day after day. You make little gains, you have some setbacks, you make bigger gains, build a bigger movement, try to carry out the types of activities that will leave institutional residue.
So, I think there’s no shortage of opportunity, there’s no real answer to what should you do. It depends on the person, your particular interests, your level of commitment, so on and so forth. But then, everything’s open.
Christopher Cramer was a student reporter in the USA. He can perhaps be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.