Conversation of Noam Chomsky with Tariq Ali
(at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, January 26, 2005)
Tariq Ali: Noam, if we could sort of start by discussing Iraq, as you said in the concluding parts of your speech, even the elections which are taking place in a very limited way might produce a government which could demand the United States leaves Iraq. Traditionally, the United States, unlikely European empires, has preferred to rule indirectly. They don’t like being present. They send Marines in and they have to they prefer to rule countries through local relays who do the dirty work themselves. So, I mean Iraq is a very complex situation, but theoretically, there is nothing to stop them from withdrawing the troops if they are convinced that the government there is going to do their bidding.
NC: Well, if they are convinced to that. But how can they be convinced? In fact, if you—well I don’t have to tell youーlet’s just imagine what the policies might be of an independent, sovereign Iraq, let’s say, more or less democratic? What are the policies likely to be?
There is going to be a Shiite majority so they’ll have some significant influence over policy. First thing they’ll do is reestablish relations with Iran. No, they don’t particularly like Iran but they don’t want to go at war with them. So, they’ll move towards what was happening already even under Sadam, restoring some sort of friendly relations with Iran. Well, that’s the last thing the United States wants. They have worked very hard to isolate Iran.
The next thing that might happen is: a Shiite-controlled, more or less democratic Iraq might stir up feelings in the Shiite areas of Saudi Arabia, which happens to be right nearby and which happens to be where the oil is.
So, you might find what in Washington must be the ultimate nightmare: a Shia region which controls most of the world’s oil. And it’s independent. Furthermore, an independent Iraq is very likely—you know more about it than me so I’m interested in hearing what you think―but my guess is that an independent sovereign Iraq would try to take its natural place as a leading state in the Arab world, maybe the leading state. You know, that’s something that goes back to biblical times.
What does that mean? It means rearming, first of all. They have to confront the regional enemy. The regional enemy, an overpowering enemy, is Israel. They are going to have to rearm and confront Israel, which means probably developing weapons of mass destruction just as a deterrent.
So, here’s the picture of what they must be dreaming about in Washington and probably 10 Downing Street―I don’t know but that does the thinking there―that here you might get a region, a sovereign and independent substantial Shiite majority (inaudible) rearming with weapons of mass destruction to try to get rid of the US outpost that are there to (inaudible) ensure the United States controls the oil reserves of the world. I mean―Washington is going to sit there and allow that? That’s kind of next to inconceivable.
Tariq Ali: I think this is a big problem. (NC: It is.) I say a problem for the United States that this entire rhetoric about democracy could implode in their face because if you haven’t・・・which is why something tells me that these elections are going to be rigged. I’m referring to the Iraqi elections.(laughter)
The way they’re setting up the voting pattern, that lots of Iraqi exiles in Britain and Europe can vote, is unheard of actually. The way they’re setting up the elections inside Iraq itself in some areas is very dubious. The model they have is the elections in Afghanistan, which were a total fraud. And the reason they are doing it is to make sure some of their hardcore people come in to the new assembly.
But despite that, I think, you’re right, Noam, that despite all the chicanery, they still might have a government which wants them out. I cannot see even a weak Iraqi government dependent on occupation troops agreeing to allow Iraqi oil to be controlled by non-Iraqis. So, Iraqi-control of Iraqi oil with no foreign troops in Iraq could become a big demand which means the war will go on.
NC: Yeah, if they agree to that. But I think that what I just read from the Business Press in the last couple of days probably reflects the thinking in Washington and London.
Well, OK, we’ll let them have a government but we’re not going to pay any attention to what they say. In fact, the Pentagon announced at the same time two days ago, we’re keeping 120,000 troops there into at least 2007, even if they call for a withdrawal tomorrow. And the propaganda is very evident right in these articles. You can write the articles now, the commentary. We just have to do it because we have to accomplish our mission of bringing democracy to Iraq. If they have elected a government that doesn’t understand that, well, you know, what can we do with these dumb Arabs, you know. Actually that’s very common. Look, after all the US has overthrown democracy after democracy because the people don’t understand. They follow the wrong course. So, therefore, following the mission of establishing democracy we’ve got to overthrow their governments.
Tariq Ali: The thing is, if they are thinking seriously, they should be thinking that if they do that, and make the government―you know, even elected in these weird circumstances―totally useless, the people who have elected it could begin to move towards joining the armed resistance groups in Iraq. That’s a big danger for the United States.
NC: It is. But remember these guys have a lot of experience. The same Thomas Carothers, who is interesting. He’s the smartest of the lot. There are a lot of them now, he points out…he’s a great believer in what he calls “Reaganite” programs of enhancing democracy. In fact, he participated in it. He was in the State Department in the Reagan years in democracy promotion projects.
And he describes…he’s written in main scholarly books and articles on what happened and it’s pretty frank. He didn’t seem to understand what he was saying just as I quoted, but it’s frank. He says the Reagan programs were, of course, noble inspiration but they were a failure, and a very systematic failure. Namely, he points out that in the southern cone of the hemisphere, [a geographic region composed of the southernmost areas of South America] where the United States had very little influence, there was real progress towards democracy, which the Reagan administration tried to stop but couldn’t stop. Therefore they reluctantly accepted it. In the regions where the US has the greatest influence nearby, there was the least progress towards democracy and even that, he says, was constrained by the fact the US would only accept top-down forms of democracy in which traditional elites allied to the United States remain in power.
But that’s a noble vision. That’s a wonderful program: we’re bringing democracy. He’s regarded as a liberal commentator, like he appears in Dissent for example. It’s taken seriously. I’m sure people who read this article that I just quoted didn’t laugh. Although I don’t know exactly know how, and there’s a long history of it, just as there is a history of projecting the United States as a model of democracy when it’s almost a prototypical example of a failed state, a state with democratic forms but no functioning.
Tariq Ali: I mean just carrying along those lines, let’s assume the situation gets worse. Large groups in the south begin to join the resistance that will require more troops from the United States trying to control the resistance inside Iraq. Given that we have the strange situation in the United States that the reserves are drying up, that fewer and fewer people are volunteering to join the Army, more are volunteering to join in the Navy and the Air Force because they are safer. Could this push the government to introduce conscription?
NC: Could, but I suspect…my guess is not…I think that’s going to be a last resort. And the reason is the Vietnam experience. The Vietnam experience I think is the first time in the history of European imperialism, that an imperial power tried to fight a colonial war with a citizen’s army. I mean the British didn’t do it. ( inaudible ) and so on. The French had the Foreign Legion. Colonial war is a—civilians just are no good at it. I mean they are too brutal and vicious and murderous. You just can’t take kids off the street and have them fight that kind of war. You need trained killers like the French Foreign Legion.
In fact, you get to see it happening in Vietnam. To its credit, the Army fell apart after a couple of years, it took too long but finally the Army essentially fell apart. Soldiers were on drugs, they were fragging officers, were not following orders and so on. The top brass wanted them out.
You look back at the military journals in the late 60s, they were writing, we got to get this Army out of here, the Army is going to collapse. Pretty much like the head of the Federal Reserve said two or three days ago. He said this is becoming a broken force. You know, people can’t do it. Well, they dropped conscription at that point and shifted it to what’s called a volunteer army, which in effect means a mercenary army of the disadvantaged.
So, the Army recruiters don’t go to high schools and colleges in suburbs. They go down to the poor areas and try to offer inducements to poor disadvantaged people to go into the services. In that way you do get a kind of mercenary army. But even that is limited. You really need professional killers. I suspect that’s the reason why they are bringing in so many—MPRI and DynCorp, you know, contractors, private contractors. You can privatize it to train killers. You know like South African mercenaries or (----) officers and DynCorp. Then you can get people do that kind of thing. Actually, I think, by now, the second largest contingent in Iraq, greater than the British is the contractors, which means, basically, trained killers. But do they have enough of them? I don’t know.
Tariq Ali: I don’t think they have enough of them and there are not that many countries which would like to supply it to them either now. The British Army is in a mess. A number of leading British generals have said if the local population turns against us…one colonel actually said it on television…he said, “if there is a large demonstration of 200,000 Shiite people outside our barracks, I’m not going to give the orders to open fire. I think that will be the time to come back home.” So, whether or not Blair wants it, there could be rebellions inside his Army is… you know, is quite incredible.
NC: I don’t know about you but I’ve been extremely surprised about what’s happened since the invasion. My own guess at that time was that the invasion would take about two days. Iraq was a broken country, barely…scarcely held together with scotch tape. If that hadn’t been true, they wouldn’t have been invaded, they knew it. I thought it would be the easiest military occupation in history. Here, the country has been practically wiped out by sanctions, killed hundreds of thousands of people who were barely being held together. I mean: here, you hear people talk about how they were glad to get rid of Sadam Hussein. Presumably they were even gladder to get rid of the sanctions. But you can’t ask that question. So we don’t know the numbers. But here, they say sanctions are over, they got rid of the tyrant. The United States can come in with enormous resources.
I mean just to give one amazing fact: they still have not reached the level of electricity of the pre-invasion period. I mean my guess is that a couple of students from MIT could probably have put that grid together by now. They’ve taken a situation which should have been an extremely easy military operation and turned it into a total catastrophe.
In fact, what’s happened is that the US has backed off, step by step, from its initial aims. Read the press now, it sounds as if the US wanted the election. It’s just not true. The US is opposed to elections. It tried all sorts of ways to develop some kind of system which would prevent elections: caucus systems that they can get control, some other trickery. And it had to back off. They had to back off from the privatization, not totally, but Bremer’s initial proposals which were outlandish, they had to back off from it.
In fact if you think about it, I think it’s a remarkable triumph of non-violent resistance. I mean it’s not the guys throwing bombs that bother them that much. It’s the steadfast refusal and resistance of the large majority of the population to accept these demands. It’s an astonishing achievement. How it’ll proceed, I don’t know. I mean, with all the resources that they have, I assume that they can somehow manage to impose the plans that they now describe: we will force them to accept vague promises of eventual withdrawal, and count on Tony Blair and George Bush’s speech writers to give the right formulation of it.
Tariq Ali: It’s going to be difficult actually for one simple reason. I think most Iraqis just don’t like being occupied by a foreign power.
NC: Well, if you finish reading―you didn’t get the chance yet to read Blair’s full interview?
Tariq Ali: No, he said it’s not an occupation.
NC: Not only that, he says he’s furious about people who think it’s an occupation, which happens to be 99 % of the population of Iraq by his own polls.
Tariq Ali: Exactly. And 78 % of the British population, according to the last polls, now wants to withdrawal of the British troops.
Tariq Ali: Noam, if you move to another thorny question in the Middle East, which is… you just don’t have the occupation of Iraq, you have the continuing occupation of Palestine by the Israelis. And on this question, it seems to me that public opinion in the West has almost given up because the way it’s presented…it is too complicated where suicide bombers are presented, it’s presented in the United States largely, but also in some parts in Western Europe, completely decontextualized.
Arafat’s death was sort of more or less celebrated in a vulgar fashion by large sections of the American media. A new person Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has been elected. Now their hope is that he will do what the Israelis want him to do, but he’s not capable of doing that. He’s not able to do that.
Alex Cockburn, an English historian, said recently that if the Israelis carry on behaving in this fashion, that the State of Israel as constituted at present might not exist by the end of the century. Now, who knows? But what do you think are the first three, four steps to a solution?
NC: I think they are pretty clear. And once again, actually I did an article after the death of Arafat in which I went through the American media to see how he was treated. And that was amazing. Some of them were quite revealing though. So, for example, the New York Times has an intelligent Middle East correspondent, he wrote a major think-piece on the death of Arafat, front page story in the Times. It started by saying that the death of Arafat will offer a test for the quintessential faith of Americans that elections legitimize even the weakest systems. That’s the first paragraph of the article on the front page. If you go on to the continuation page to the last paragraph, the last paragraph says the Americans would never accept the elections before because they knew that Arafat was going to win. So that’s the quintessential faith. The quintessential faith is that elections are fine if they are going to come out the way we say.
Now, go to popular attitudes which are extremely interesting and as usual are suppressed. The same, major public opinion agencies, and they do careful studies, found that already, right now in fact, the proportion, the percentage of the Americans who think that the US ought to tilt towards Israel is 17%. One-seven. 17% of the Americans think we should be more favorable to Israel.
In fact in-depth studies, not reported…what they show is that a large majority, perhaps two-thirds, think that we should accept what is called here “the Saudi plan”, which is just, you know, the latest version of the two state proposal the US has been blocking for 30 years. That’s a large majority of the American population. Neither political party will even dream of it.
The same large majority, roughly two thirds, think that the United States ought to cut off aid from either party, either Israel or the Palestinians, who are not negotiating in good faith on a two state settlement. That means cut off aids from Israel. The same majority says that if both parties are negotiating, we ought to equalize aid to them. I mean that is so radically different from anything in the political arena or any word you can read in the media that they thought they don’t have to say about it.
What is interesting about all these numbers including the ones I quoted before is that these are opinions of people held in isolation. I mean every one of answering those questions must think I’m the only person in the world who thinks like this. They have certainly never seen it anywhere, never heard of it anywhere. I mean: if it was possible to discuss these questions, if there was some functioning form of political democracy with organizations, discussions, debates and so on, that would just reinforce the opinions, would be much stronger. That’s a possible solution.
In fact, it’s on the table. In fact, as you know it, it came pretty close. The Clinton Camp David proposals were totally impossible…and Clinton basically conceded that. A couple of months after Camp David 2000, he came out a couple of weeks before the end of his term with what were called the Clinton parameters, which were pretty vague but much more forthcoming than the Camp David proposals which were impossible.
And that led to the negotiations, negotiations in Taba in Egypt in January 2001. And Clinton, when he, a couple of weeks after, announced his parameters right at the end of his term, he stated that, he gave a speech in which he said that both sides have, Palestinians and Israelis, have tentatively accepted his parameters. And both sides have reservations. Well, that’s what was discussed at Taba. The negotiators came to a conclusion that was – might not be going to work as it stood, but was a very close to the old international consensus the US had been blocking. Well, (Ehud) Barak called off the negotiations. Then we get to a cycle of violence.
But they continued. And there are now several versions. The best established ones are the Geneva Accords released in Geneva in December 2002, which were supported by just about the entire world. The United States refused. It was the only major country that wouldn’t even send a low-level delegate or make a comment about it. So, they are dead.
Well, they could be a basis for settlement. They’re not perfect as they stand but they are certainly a basis for settlement. In fact, it’s been a possibility since the mid-70s. And it remains a possibility if the United States will accept it. And the population overwhelmingly accepts it. But neither political party does, the media don’t. There’s no discussion possible about it. The degree of falsification about this is just mind boggling.
I mean take say Tony Blair this morning. He’s supposed to be the intelligent European…(Tariq Ali: Well, he’s …) Well, euro-prime minister. You’re responsible. (laughing) Half-European, maybe a quarter. But his interview this morning was quite interesting. He says he’s confident within the next few weeks the United States with his good friend George Bush will take the lead, taking the matter in hand so on and so forth.
But what’s the problem that has to be taken in hand? The problem is security for Israel. Period. The Palestinians have to agree to ensure security for Israel. Not one word about what the major issue is. What about the occupation? What about the fact that the so-called Gaza withdrawal proposal was really a West Bank expansion plan? I mean on the same day that Sharon announced the Gaza withdrawal, his government also announced tens of millions of dollars of new construction in the Occupied Territories.
Just a couple days ago, they reported that secretly last summer Israel had passed what was called in the New York Times “the qualification” of the absentee ownership law. The qualification allows Israel to confiscate without compensation lands of the Palestinians living in what they call “the seam,” the area between the Separation wall that they are building through the occupied West Bank, between there and the border of Israel. Well, that means they can just take over more and more territory, means somebody living in Bethlehem, and whose olives grows ten yards away on the other side of the Separation wall, has lost ownership of them because he doesn’t occupy that land. So, therefore it gets confiscated. These programs of development, integration, infrastructure, development of new settlement and so on, that’s what’s undermining any political settlement. And the US is supporting them and Britain’s keeping quiet about it. And they go on all the time and that’s not considered a problem.
Tariq Ali: I mean the notion that Israel, which has the fifth strongest army in the world, which has nuclear weapons, which has a stock pile of chemical weapons could be threatened by any of the existing Arab states, leave alone the Palestinians, is just grotesque. I mean they’re trying to project a situation which did exist in 1948 to what exists now, when they themselves became totally transformed and now are the most threatening power in that region. And it always worries me coming to the United States that the media here in particular, just is completely blind to Palestinian’s suffering, it doesn’t exist.
NC: But that’s been true (Tariq Ali: for a long time) ever since the US shifted policy. I mean that’s basically in 1967. I mean prior to that, the New York Times was not a pro-Israel newspaper. If you go back to the 1950s, the American Jewish Committee, its journal Commentary was a non-Zionist journal. In fact, the Zionist Organization actually set up a competing journal to express the Zionist point of view. It changed dramatically in 1967. And it finally changed in 1971. That is the crucial date there which is effaced from American not only media but even most scholarship.
In 1971, Egypt, Sadat, offered Israel a full peace treaty right in terms of US official policy. Jordan followed right along and the Israeli government discussed it, debated it, recognized that they could have peace and security, be integrated into the region and so on but at cost of giving up expansion. And expansion at that time meant primarily into the Sinai where there were, this was a labor government, they were kicking out thousands of farmers and planning to build an all-Jewish city in the northeastern Sinai. That was the choice. If it is going to be expansion or peace. Well, they chose expansion. They rejected the offer.
The crucial question was what’s the United States going to do. And there was an internal debate, it was won by Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor. And his policy as he describes was “stalemate.” No negotiations, only force. OK, that led to the 1973 war, a very close call.
Finally in Camp David in 1978, the US and Israel accepted Sadat’s 1971 offer. That’s called a triumph of American diplomacy. But it was a total disaster. Their refusal to accept it led to a dangerous war, almost nuclear confrontation, for Israel it was very a close call, an enormous amount of suffering, well, by then they finally agreed, OK, we will give back Egyptian territory, but by then they were expanding into the West Bank with US funding and support over the opposition of the American population. So it continues.
But the solution to this problem is―there are problems where it’s hard to think of solutions. But here it’s easy to think, it’s not a pretty solution. I think it’s a horrible solution frankly, but it’s a solution which would at least cut back the level of violence would allow relations to establish which might ultimately lead to something sane in the region. And it’s sitting right there. All it requires is that the opinions of about two-thirds of Americans be taken into consideration.
Tariq Ali: we’re approaching the end of this session. Lots of you sent in questions but look, reading the questions we have covered many of the things you asked. There is one question which we haven’t discussed at all and haven’t covered. That’s the one I’m going to pose to Noam. Who in your opinion is the most important anarchist thinker?
NC: Well, any person I would mention is automatically disqualified because any honest anarchist thinker would simply, immediately reject the description of being the most important anarchist thinker.
Actually, probably the most important anarchist thinkers at least that I know of are poor, illiterate peasants in Aragon and Catalonia in 1936, who actually constructed a successful live anarchist society over a large area industrial and agricultural. Most of them were illiterate. They left documents so... there are some documents left which were extremely interesting. And it was not spontaneous, this had been after efforts that had been going for 70 years. Efforts that were attempts, crushed, try again, educational programs, all sorts of things.
Finally in the first year of the Spanish Revolution, it broke out and flourished. And it was so terrifying to everyone that every single power combined to crush it. Fascists, Russia, liberal democracies put aside their differences to ensure that this would be crushed. And after they crushed it, they fought the war, that’s the war of succession. They were probably the most important anarchist thinkers. And the same is true everywhere.
Take a look at the IWW in the United States, Those were important anarchist thinkers who actually carried out actions which led finally to the development of the American labor movement, which had been bitterly suppressed. The US has a very violent labor history. Actually you know about it around here.
Their activities and others like them finally did lead to substantial successes. There’s major attacks against them since, but those are successes of people who were constructing worker-managed community-run societies which is kind of an anarchist ideal.
This is very deeply rooted in the United States. People forget what it’s like, I mean those were, a period in American history in which there was.. there were substantial victories for democracy through the 19th century. People write about it, call it the period of “self-rule.” It was based on the assumption which was very widely spread in the United States that wage labor is not very different from slavery. I mean that was the slogan of northern workers who fought in the Civil War. In fact it was even the slogan under the Republican Party. It was slavery is of course unacceptable but so is wage slavery. You have to control your own fate.
You read the newspapers written during the period of the freest press in the United States, the late 19th century, where working people were running their own newspapers, communities and others. People in the mills in eastern Massachusetts, origins of the American industrial revolution, there presses were what we’d call anarchist. These were Irish artisans from the slums of Boston, farm girls from…what they called factory girls…young women coming off the farms into the mills. They just took for granted that those who work in the mills should own them and that we should create our own self-managed society in agreeing with others. That’s a deep part of American history. It takes a lot of effort to crush it.