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Tuesday, September 13, 2011 Previous | Next

Pt. 2: Noam Chomsky on Libya, Israel & GOP Presidential Candidates’ "Utterly Outlandish" Positions

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Noam Chomsky, author and Institute Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for more than 50 years. He is author of dozens of books. An updated edition of his book 9-11 has just been published, called 9-11: Was There an Alternative?

In our extended interview with Noam Chomsky, he argues that in Libya, "you could have made a case for a no-fly zone and protection of civilians, but I think it’s much harder to make a case for direct participation in a civil war and undercutting of possible options that were supported by almost the entire world." Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Chomsky notes that Turkey and Egypt have been key allies for Israel and that the deterioration of their relations "contributes very substantially to Israel’s isolation in the region." Back in the United States, Chomsky says that while he is no fan of President Obama, the position of the Republican presidential candidates on issues such as climate change are "utterly outlandish." Chomsky is interviewed by Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, along with producer Aaron Maté.

See the complete Sept. 13 interview with Prof. Noam Chomsky on Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Noam Chomsky. His latest book, 9-11: Was There an Alternative?, has been republished—well, with a new essay about the assassination of Osama bin Laden. His original book, 9-11, just months published after the 9/11 attacks, was the seminal counter-narrative to what was being said after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, as he spoke out against the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Noam, we’ve talked about what’s going on domestically now. We have talked about what is happening in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank. What about Libya?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, there are actually two major issues with regard to Libya. The first one was, was it appropriate to initiate and then to implement the U.N. resolution, U.N. 1973, which called for a no-fly zone and protection of civilians? That’s first question. Second question, was it appropriate for the—basically the imperial triumvirate, the traditional imperial states—U.S., Britain and France—was it appropriate for them instantly to reject the resolution that they had gotten through the Security Council and to simply become pretty much the air force for one of the sides in the civil war, the rebel side? Those are two quite separate issues.

My own feeling was that you could have made a case for a no-fly zone and protection of civilians, but I think it’s much harder to make a case for direct participation in a civil war and undercutting of possible options that were supported by almost the entire world. The African country—the African Union, the so-called BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa—you know, the major developing countries, non-aligned countries, almost entirely were pressing for some kind of negotiated settlement, not just taking part—participating on the rebel side in the war. Well, was that the right thing to do or not? A lot of questions to ask. If, according to the Transitional National Council, the rebel quasi-government, about 30,000 people have been killed, that’s not slight.

Right now there’s a major attack going on on—against the bases of the largest tribe in Libya. NATO’s bombing—you know, the triumvirate is bombing, the rebels are attacking. Who knows what’s going to happen there? They’re already—it’s a very complex situation. Very few people understand it. It’s a tribal society. The western tribes, the ones that pretty much conquered Tripoli, although the people in Tripoli say they did it themselves, those tribes are one group. Cyrenaica, the eastern coastal regions, have been—that’s where the Transitional National Council is centered—have been pretty different from tribal Libya for a long time, way back to the colonial period. They were very anti-Gaddafi. There are other tribes. The loyalty and the commitments of the other tribal groups is pretty much unknown. It could turn into a—I mean, one hopes for the best, but the seeds are there for pretty ugly conflicts and confrontations.

I should say, I was kind of struck by the fact that the energy corporations didn’t skip a beat. I mean, the day that troops were—that rebel forces were—western tribes were beginning to approaching Tripoli, that day, the New York Times business section, the lead article had a headline like, you know, "Oil Companies Scramble for Contracts" or something like that. And it just hasn’t been hidden that they’re very eager to assure that they get their hands on the loot. What’s important in Libya is, first of all, it has a good deal of oil. A lot of the country is unexplored; there may be a lot more. And it’s very high-quality oil, so very valuable. There are some reasons to anticipate that it might turn out not too badly, but it’s—I think it would be a very rash person who would try to make a prediction now.

AARON MATÉ: Noam, I wanted to ask you about this crisis unfolding with Turkey and Israel. Earlier this month, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and other senior diplomats after the release of a U.N. report on Israel’s attack on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla in 2010. The report accused Israel of, quote, "excessive and unreasonable force" in its attacks on the Mavi Marmara, which killed nine people. But it also called on Israel to issue a statement of regret and compensate the families of the dead, as well as the wounded passengers. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to apologize. He wants improved relations with Turkey. And this is what he said.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] In the past few days, we have witnessed a deepening of tensions with Turkey. It was not our choice, and it is not our choice today. We respect the Turkish people and its heritage, and we certainly want to improve ties.

AARON MATÉ: Noam Chomsky, what does this spat over the flotilla mean for Israel and Turkey and for the region?

NOAM CHOMSKY: I should say on the side that I didn’t think much of that U.N. report, for all kind of reasons, but let’s skip that.

Turkey is the—has been the closest and, in fact, oldest regional ally of Israel. The close Turkish-Israeli relations go back to the late 1950s—military intelligence, commercial, more recently, tourism and cultural relations. That’s their one significant regional ally. And, of course, it’s the major regional power. For them to have—to break—if those relations significantly deteriorate, that contributes very substantially to Israel’s isolation in the region.

Now, at the same time—the same thing is happening in Egypt. One of the reasons why the U.S. and its allies are so concerned about, and in fact so antagonistic to, democracy in Egypt—and, in fact, anywhere in the Arab world—is that if you have moves towards democracy, popular opinion is going to have some effect on policy. In fact, that’s the basic measure of whether there’s any functional democracy. Well, public opinion in Egypt is very antagonistic to the way the dictatorship, Mubarak dictatorship, interpreted relations with Israel. Very antagonistic. There was a peace treaty in 1979, and it was interpreted in Israel right away, and in the United States, as essentially licensing Israel to expand its criminal activities in the Occupied Territories and to attack its northern neighbor, Lebanon, which is exactly what it did. The reasoning, which was pretty clearly expressed, is that with Egypt neutralized—that’s the one major deterrent to Israeli actions—and if they’re neutralized, if there’s a peace treaty they pull out of it, then Israel is free to go ahead to do what it wants in the Occupied Territories and attacking Lebanon. Notice that’s exactly what happened. Now that’s—they’re very—and it’s continued that way. And there’s plenty of bitterness in Egypt about this.

There’s also—the Egyptian opinion, public opinion, like throughout the Arab world, regards the United States and Israel as the major threats they face. In [Egypt], latest polls, about 90 percent. And they don’t regard Iran as a threat. Maybe 10 percent in the Arab world, major polls about a year ago, regard Iran as a threat. In fact, opposition to U.S. policy is so strong that throughout the Arab world, a majority—in Egypt, it’s 80 percent—think the region would be more secure if Iran had nuclear weapons. Well, you know, that’s not the kind of policy that the United States and Israel want to see implemented, needless to say, hence a strong opposition to the rise of any meaningful democracy.

But even—and there have been successes in Egypt of the popular movements, the labor movement and others. Labor, for the first—which is a core part of the uprising, goes back many years, is now organizing freely, is beginning to form independent unions and so on. Other parts of the population are. The press is much freer. There are some real achievements, despite the fact that the military regime is still in place. And they show up in policy. As public opinion becomes somewhat more influential in policy formation, you see the effect. The attack on the Israeli embassy a couple of days ago was a kind of a dramatic element of it. Israeli-Egyptian relations now are quite tense. Next to Turkey, Egypt is the most important regional country for Israel.

But it’s beyond that. A couple of months ago, the Egyptian government, for the first time in 30 years, permitted Iranian ships to transit the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. That may have included submarines. Not clear. Israel—they’re moving towards exchanging ambassadors, Egypt and Iran. Egypt somewhat relaxed the entry, the Gaza-Egypt border, the Rafah border—limited, but something. That undermines, to some extent, the U.S.-backed Israeli siege on Gaza. Egypt moved to help expedite some degree of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the two—you know, the major Palestinian factions that dominate, respectively, Gaza and the West Bank. That also carries forward—that kind of unity is essential if the Palestinians are going to make significant moves towards some degree of independence—statehood, whatever form it takes.

Well, all of these moves by Egypt are regarded very negatively by the U.S. and Israel. And that relation between—well, as you know, the Israeli ambassador had to be flown out on a military jet a couple days ago with the whole staff. So, on the one hand, relations with Turkey are deteriorating; on the other hand, the relations with Egypt are deteriorating — "relations" in the sense in which they had existed as a license for Israeli military action and occupation. And that is leading in Israel to a rather significant reassessment of where they should go.

This is coming even from the right wing. Just a couple days ago, Dov Weissglas, close to Sharon, very right-wing politician, urged Israel to—Israeli leadership to reassess their policies towards Palestinians, towards statehood. There was a very important meeting about two or three months ago—

AMY GOODMAN: Noam, we have to end in just two minutes, so we just—

NOAM CHOMSKY: —reported in the Hebrew press—I’m sorry, OK.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to wrap for a minute by asking you two quick questions. One is about politics in this country. Do you see a big difference between Obama, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry? Do you think there would be a drastic change in policy if a Republican were to win in 2012 and if it were Perry or Romney?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, I must say that politics in this country now is in a state that I think has no analogue in American history and maybe nowhere in any parliamentary system. It’s astonishing. I mean, I’m not a great enthusiast for Obama, as you know, from way back, but at least he’s somewhere in the real world. Perry, who’s very likely—very likely to get the—to win the primary and win the nomination, and maybe to win the election, he’s often in outer space. I mean, his views are unbelievable. Bachmann is the same. Romney is kind of more or less toward the center. These are—the positions that they are taking are utterly outlandish.

I mean, as you mentioned before, I just came back from Europe, where people just can’t believe what they’re seeing here, what people are saying. I mean, take one of the really crucial issues for the human species: doing something about environmental catastrophe. Well, you know, every single one of the Republican candidates—maybe not Huntsman, but every major one—is a climate change denier. It’s kind of ironic in the case of Perry. He says there’s no global warming, while Texas is burning up with the highest temperatures on record, fire all over the place, and so on. But it doesn’t matter, it’s just not happening. In fact, the one who has conceded that maybe global warming has taken place is Michele Bachmann. I heard a statement of hers in which she said, "Well, yes, maybe it’s happening. It’s God’s punishment for allowing gay marriage," or some comment like that. I mean, this—what’s going on there is just off the international spectrum of sane behavior.

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