Hegemnoy or Survival
Hot Type, December 9, 2003
Nobody we ever talked to on HotType provoked such controversy - both lavish praise and harsh criticism as Noam Chomsky. Since the Vietnam War the controversial public intellectual, professor and activist has been at the centre of the debate about the US use and misuse of its power. As the violence continues in Iraq, Noam Chomsky has a new book out called "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance." We thought it was a good time to come here to Boston to this non-descript building where Noam Chomsky teaches, and we sat down to have a conversation about everything from his new book to his treatment in the American press-especially the New York Times to what may happen in the future…
EVAN SOLOMON: You argue in the book that the fundamental principal that this administration and past administrations have functioned under is that hegemony is more important than survival. can these two things function together?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Those who sought domination, hegemony, often did so at their own severe risk. Look at the history of warfare. You'll find that those who started wars often were defeated and sometimes devastatingly defeated. The differences now are scale. Survival of the species was not an issue before. It is now. It has been ever since nuclear weapons were around and it's getting worse.
ES: The Bush administration has been criticized for refusing to sign the Kyoto protocols or to take any steps toward reducing, significant steps, toward reducing what could be environmental catastrophe.
NC: I mean we're taught…what we have drilled into our heads…your
driving force in life is to maximize your own wealth.
The same is true of a lot of other things. Take the militarization of space.
Right after the national security strategy was announced in September of 2002, the space command, which is in control of futuristic military programs….say we have to move from control of space, which we now have, to ownership of space. Ownership of space means no challenge will be tolerated. It's ours, you get out.
Others are going to react to this - in fact they already are…and they're all moving to automated response systems, launch-on-warning-type systems. This is a recipe for disaster.
We have come very close, as I discuss in the book, what was just
discovered last October at the Havana retrospective on the Cuban
missile crisis, turns out that we were literally one word away from a
nuclear war. If one Russian submarine captain had not cancelled an
NC: It was his decision whether to fire nuclear weapons. The others said yeah. He said no. They needed agreement in order to do it. These were torpedoes, nuclear-tipped torpedoes. It's almost certain there would have been nuclear response and then you're off and running.
ES: President Bush said that democracy is - this is a quote - democracy is the only path to national success and dignity in the middle east.
NC: If we were reasonable our reaction to this would be to completely discount it because any leader you pick, anyone you like is going to produce this rhetoric. That comes with the job. What you do is look at the practices that lie behind it.
ES: You cite the case of Turkey, for example, and Turkey's reaction to the war against Iraq. And you explain how this war illustrated what the Bush administration means when it says democracy.
NC: Yeah, and Turkey is a striking case.
But what went on with regard to democracy this year? It was pretty
ES: 95% of the population said you should not allow Turkey to be used as a staging ground for U.S. Troops…
NC: - to everyone's surprise.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, he went so far as to condemn the Turkish military bitterly for failing to prevent the government from carrying out this terrible act of accepting the position of 95% of the population.
In fact, he called on them, basically ordered them, to apologize to the United States for their bad behaviour and to recognize that they must help the United States. That's democracy.
ES: So when Bush says that democracy is the only path to national success and dignity, he means democracy if it follows the American version -
NC: Democracy if you follow our orders.
If some miraculous conversion took place and the people around Bush decided: OK, we really are interested in democracy, in human rights, there are actions they can take instantly. I mean why support murderous, brutal dictators like Islom Karimov in Uzbekistan, who is sort of comparable to Saddam Hussein.
And this is not just United States. I mean Britain just withdrew its ambassador from Uzbekistan because he had the honesty to point out that the dictator, who Britain is supporting, is a murderous, brutal tyrant who, in fact, I think it was his example, boils his opponents to death, you know, in boiling water. Yeah, that's our conception of democracy and human rights.
ES: I sat down about a year ago with, not even, with Henry Kissinger and he said to me: we've moved to a new era - post 9/11…. That the old world, where you could not pre-emptively strike is over, because the security threats now are totally new to national sovereignty. And therefore we're in the age of the preventative or pre-emptive war and it's rational. Now you talk about it in here saying this is what you call the grand imperial strategy. Is Kissinger right to say that this is a post 9/11 development?
NC: He knows perfectly well that that's nonsense. The U.S. has
always had that strategy.
Henry Kissinger knows this perfectly well. He knows, he's not a
There was something different about the national security strategy announced in September of 2002. It's kind of a crucial event…
The national security strategy is a declaration saying that the U.S. must dominate the world by force if necessary, a dimension in which the U.S. reigns supreme, will do it permanently and that it reserves the right to prevent any potential challenge to its domination by the use of military force if necessary.
That's the essential content. That's what the next issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs have called the new Imperial Grand Strategy.
And this did cause enormous reaction around the world, including here - including the foreign policy elite right here…not that it was a new doctrine. But that it was extremely brazen. It was in your face.
You're telling the world: this is what we're going to do. We're going to attack anyone we want without any pretext, without any international authority and we're going to do it because we're stronger than you.
So that's stupid. You don't make a speech about it. You don't put up a flag in front of everybody saying: here I am, I'm coming to attack you.
In fact, Arthur Schlesinger, you know, big radical, pointed out right away -
ES: Who worked in the Kennedy government and the great historian -
NC: Yeah, a major historian. As soon as the U.S. Bombed Iraq, he said: look, we're following the policy of Imperial Japan, and they also talked about anticipatory self-defense. He said, quoted Roosevelt: Pearl Harbor is a date that will live in infamy. And he was right, and today it's Americans who live in infamy because we've adopted the policy of Imperial Japan and other aggressors.
I mean if you can announce to people: I'm going to come and attack you whenever I feel like it, they don't say: gee thank you, here I am, please bomb me. So they turn to the weapons that are available to the weak.
Weapons of mass destruction, which you can probably make in a high
school chemistry lab or biology lab somewhere. And terror.
It led to a sharp spike in recruitment for al-Qaeda style organizations. Experts on North Korea and Iran pointed out right away it's probably a factor in simulating their search for weapons of mass destruction.
For short-term reasons of gain, there are interesting reasons to attack Iraq to announce the national security strategy. They're conscious of the fact that this is going to lead to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and increase in terror, not outcomes that Rumsfeld and Cheney want, but just kind of low priority. There are higher priorities. And sooner or later, it may lead to self-destruction.
NC: So this idea that manifest destiny, America as the vanguard of
history, this means that no matter what it does as the imperial force
in the world, its actions are benign and justifiable or defensive or
preventive or pre-emptive and everyone else, you're suggesting…
NC: That's actually interesting. And under the official definition, what the Iraqi forces are doing in shooting down a helicopter is not terrorism, not under the official U.S. definition. However, what the U.S. does is terrorism under the official definition.
ES: Is that right?
ES: So is every country, terrorist?
NC: Terrorist? I wouldn't say every country. Maybe Luxembourg isn't or Andorra. But countries that act, throw their weight around in the international scene very commonly are involved in terror.
I mean, in the case of say, Nicaragua, the U.S.-run terrorist war virtually destroyed the country. The number of casualties caused by the U.S. terrorist war in Nicaragua is, relative to population, it's higher than the total number of U.S. casualties in all U.S. wars in U.S. history, including the Civil War. That's fairly serious.
Take, if you go south of the U.S. border, there's something called the other 9/11, not in the United States, but south of the border. The other 9/11 is September 11, 1973, when operations supported and backed by Henry Kissinger among others, led to the bombing of the presidential palace in Chile, the overthrow of the parliamentary government and the killing, by conservative estimates, of about 3,000 people. It's probably maybe, twice that. Three thousand people in Chile is the equivalent of, counterpart of 60,000 in the United States. If 60,000 people were killed on September 11th, our September 11th, do you think that people would notice that? Yeah, they would. But when we do it to them, it's like you know, a mistake…
ES: Would you say that the mission in Iraq is an act of terror?
NC: The mission, I agree with Arthur Schlesinger says it's just outright aggression, it's like Pearl Harbor, he's correct.
They announced very clearly: we're going to invade Iraq and we're
going to do it without any pretext and without international
ES: So the weapons of mass destruction and the rebuilding of Iraq, these are just pretexts, you're saying?
NC: There's no question about it. You see the way they follow one another. I go through some of this in the book.
ES: So this idea that it's going to be a domino effect of democracy, he's going to bring democracy -
NC: Notice that this is after the fact. Since all the other pretexts have collapsed and you still need a pretext, you fall back on what's the universal declaration of every leader, whether it's Hitler or Stalin, Tony Blair, or anyone else: we're going to ram democracy and freedom.
I mean you really have to admire the discipline of educated people who are able to watch all of this and not burst out in laughter, pretend to take it seriously.
EVAN SOLOMON: People sometimes read your stuff and we've talked over the years and they say Chomsky's an Anti-American.
NOAM CHOMSKY: That's an interesting concept. Now suppose somebody in Italy criticizes Berlusconi's policies, would anybody call him anti-Italian? Try that in the streets of Milan, people will collapse in laughter.
ES: A year from today there's another presidential election and again I quote the New York Times. "The political challenge posed to President Bush after the deadly helicopter attack in Iraq, is how to keep public opinion from swinging against him over Iraq while not abandoning his quest to bring a stable democracy to that country. "
NC: You know, they ought to be writhing in embarrassment for saying that. On what grounds do they believe that George Bush is trying to bring a stable democracy to Iraq? The only grounds are our leaders told us that and we are so subordinate to power that we worship them and revere them and if they say something we repeat it, not asking whether it's true.
Like is it true that's he's trying to bring a stable democracy to
Iraq? You're not allowed to ask that. As in the quote you mentioned.
ES: How will he keep public opinion from swinging against him?
NC: Carl Rove, the campaign manager, has already pointed out that the party activists are going have to do the same thing they did in 2002 and in fact same thing they did into the 1980s and that is push the panic button. Their policies, domestic policies are quite unpopular, they're very harmful to the general population, they're devastating to future generations. They're going have to pay the cost of this reactionary stateism where you have a huge state and you cut taxes for the wealthy. And there's a cost to that. And the population doesn't like it, so you've got to get their mind off it, have to frighten them, you have to make them think that some demon's coming after them, so you have to huddle underneath the powerful leader who will protect you.
And if they have to manufacture a crisis they'll do that. I mean
take say what happened on May first of this year. Interesting.
ES: On the Abraham Lincoln Aircraft Carrier.
NC: Again any self-respecting newspaper would've collapsed into ridicule. Front page of the New York Times - reported that they gave a victory speech with a powerful Reaganesque finale to the war. What were they referring to? They're referring to Reagan's speech, explaining proudly how the U.S. is again standing tall, after what?
After having conquered the nutmeg capital of the world, Grenada. Where 6000 U.S. special forces succeeded in overcoming the resistance of a couple of dozen middle aged construction workers, we won 8000 medals and we were standing tall. And that was a powerful Reaganesque finale. The United States was saved from destruction because an airport they were building might have been used by the Russians, if they can find it on a map.
The more astute press on May 1st was quite aware of it. The Wall Street Journal report didn't talk about a splendid Reaganesque finale, it said this doesn't have anything to do with the war in Iraq, it's the opening of the presidential campaign.
ES: So we live in a democracy of futility?
NC: That's the point.
Bush succeeded in getting a majority of the working class vote even though he's harming them and the two issues on which people voted - the main issues - were religiosity and gun control. When I think of top issues of concern…
ES: Not even electoral issues.
NC: Not even issues of working people. They care about their jobs, their pensions, their health care and things like that, but those things are not on the agenda. For good reason. Because on those things public opinion and elite opinion differ sharply so they are not on the political agenda, they're barely discussed in the media and people are left with voting about whether the guy is religious or not.
The point is to create top down forms of democracy in which the
public is marginalized but elites remain in control and they support
ES: Can nation states act decently?
NC: Yeah, no law against it. Sometimes they do under citizens'
EVAN SOLOMON: Are you surprised you've become a best seller again?
INOAM CHOMSKY: 'm talking to you. I'm not talking to CBS. My interviews are all outside the United States…
ES: The new york times magazine this past weekend?
NC: Was interesting, did you look at it?
NC: That's an interview which could not appear in any country in
the world outside the United States.
ES: So why do you think they tried to make you look like a clown in that?
NC: I don't think they tried. I think just comes naturally to them. They cannot comprehend that there could be something that's a millimeter away from approved doctrine, like every other country.
It's even true of the photograph. They did an elaborate photography
session. Perfectly nice guy. At the end he says, would you mind taking
your glasses off? And I said, it's ridiculous, it's not me. Take a
picture of Robert Redford or somebody. The only time I ever take my
glasses off is when I go to bed. He said, well just for fun. What
pictures did they use? The ones without the glasses, and it's trivial,
So yes they ran an interview, but the kind that says a lot about the New York Times.
ES: It's good to see you always, as usual. Thanks a lot.
NC: Do you want me to take off my glasses? (laughing)
You know the best books make us feel uncomfortable about the things
we disagree with.
I would highly recommend this book, it does what good books always do-it provokes.
That's it with Noam Chomsky in Boston this week.