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Noam Chomsky on the Middle East

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As the emergency peace talks are underway in Egypt, we continue with the joint speech of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky given last year at Columbia University. We go now to Professor Noam Chomsky. [includes rush transcript]


Noam Chomsky, an Institute Professor at MIT, he is a world-renowned linguist, philosopher and political analyst. His latest book is Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the emergency Middle East summit takes place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where the leaders of Israel, the Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and President Clinton have gathered in a summit sponsored by the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, we turn now to Noam Chomsky. He and Edward Said spoke recently at Columbia University about the Middle East. Noam Chomsky has written extensively about the Israel-Palestine conflict. A well-known political analyst, he is also a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This is Noam Chomsky.

NOAM CHOMSKY: The core issue in the Middle East is very straightforward: namely, oil. Since World War I, when the world began to move onto an oil-based economy, the Middle East has become central in world affairs, for the very obvious reason that it has by far the largest and the most accessible petroleum resources, primarily in Saudi Arabia, secondarily in Iraq, and thirdly in the Gulf Emirates and elsewhere. It is, as the State Department described it during the Second World War, when the U.S. was taking over, it’s a stupendous source of strategic power and the greatest material prize in world history. It’s strategically the most important part of the world, as the president of Columbia University described it as he was making his transition from Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe to supreme commander of the world, in the White House, which I guess says something about Columbia’s rank in world order.

The smaller, more expensive reserves, like North Sea and Alaska, are declining. The role of the Middle East in the world energy system is accordingly increasing, and it’ll become critical, probably in the not-too-distant future, if, as is widely anticipated, the current oil glut proves to be temporary, which is not unlikely: the rate of discovery has been declining since the 1960s despite high technology and deep sea drilling and so on, and the usage of energy has been sharply increasing. In fact, about half of the total usage in history is since the oil price rise in the early 1970s, and it’s going up. It’s expected that the magic “halfway point,” as it’s called, when half of the known accessible resources are used, is coming fairly soon. All of this spells crisis. It’s possible, of course, that some unpredictable breakthrough will take place and things will change, but policy planning is not based on unpredictable technological breakthroughs. So we can pretty confidently expect that the United States will continue, as in the past, to do everything it can to make sure that the greatest material prize in world history remains firmly in its hands.

Well, the United States took over from Britain in the Middle East, and in fact much of the world, after the Second World War — actually, replaced Britain and France. France was summarily expelled; they weren’t given the time of day. Britain, however, was given a role. It was given a role of a junior partner, as the British Foreign Office rather ruefully described it, accurately. Britain was going to be our lieutenant — the fashionable word is “partner,” as they were described by a senior adviser of the Kennedy administration. The U.S. — now, that’s reasonably accurate. Actually, you’re seeing an example of it right now: the lieutenant is doing its job — “attack dog,” maybe.

The United States took over from — inherited from Britain the modalities of control of the region, as well. These modalities had changed during and after World War I, when Britain no longer had the force to rule the empire directly, by occupation, and therefore had to turn to air power and high technology, advanced technology. So, it was explained pretty frankly. The distinguished statesman Lloyd George, he was commenting on Britain’s success in undermining a disarmament conference, which would have barred the use of air power against civilians. He pointed out that that was a success because, as he put it, “We have to reserve the right to bomb the niggers,” which kind of sums up world affairs rather nicely. Winston Churchill, who was then the Secretary of State at the War Office, was a great enthusiast for using advanced technology to achieve the same end. His favorite was poison gas. He said that — back in the early '20s, that poison gas would be a fine weapon, he thought, against “uncivilized tribesmen and recalcitrant Arabs.” That's referring to Kurds and Afghans at the time, but they apparently qualified. He said it should inspire a “lively terror.” You recall that poison gas was the ultimate atrocity in those days. And he said that this is simply the use of — it’s an application of Western science to military warfare, to the measures of warfare, therefore we shouldn’t back off from it. Well, those were the military tactics; they’ve had a distinguished career ever since.

On the political side, Britain — we know from the British Foreign Office records, Colonial Office records, which have been declassified, they developed a system which in fact the U.S. has taken over. The idea was that the oil-producing states would be administered by what the British called — secretly, of course — what they called “an Arab façade,” constitutional fictions behind which Britain would continue to rule. Now, the façade has to be weak, because it has to be dependable, has to do what you tell it. But then there’s a problem, because if the façade is weak, it may not be able to control its own population, and its own population is uncivilized and ignorant. They do not understand. They can be easily infected by what’s called a “virus” of radical nationalism, which was defined by the State Department back in the 1940s as the belief that the first beneficiaries of a country’s resources ought to be the people of that country. And that, of course, is intolerable, because any sane and civilized person can understand that the first beneficiaries of a country’s resources have to be wealthy investors in the United States and so on. So these people just don’t understand that, and they’re always causing trouble. They’re uncivilized tribesmen and so on. And sometimes poison gas doesn’t work, so you have to have some way of keeping the Arab façade in power.

And to do that, as the U.S. developed the system, there’s two levels of violence required — actually, this is all over the world. I mean, much of the history of the last half-century is the playing out of this issue in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, the Middle East and all over. It’s not put that way, but that’s the way it is. In the Middle East, the way it was worked out is that there are to be what the Nixon administration called “local cops on the beat,” that is, local gendarmes who sort of keep order in the neighborhood. And it’s best to have them be non-Arab. They do better at killing recalcitrant Arabs. So there’s a periphery of — it’s, in fact, what David Ben-Gurion, Israeli prime minister, called “the periphery policy” of non-Arab states: Iran under the Shah, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan. They’re there to be the local cops on the beat. The understanding, of course, is that police headquarters remains in Washington, and if things really get out of hand, the local cops on the beat can’t handle it, there’s British and U.S. muscle and reserve to be used when needed. That’s essentially the modality of control.

The Central Command, as it’s now called, which was initiated by Carter as the Rapid Deployment Force, is the major U.S. intervention force, by far, in the world. And it’s an enormous force. It’s based from Guam to the Azores, even with bases in the Indian Ocean, where the junior partner was kind enough to drive out the population of an island so that U.S. bases could be put in there, all aimed at the core area: the Middle East intervention forces. In 1980, when the Carter administration was explaining this to Congress, they pointed out that the problem wasn’t the Russians. In fact, this was after the invasion of Afghanistan, but they realized that’s not the problem. The problem is regional unrest — that is, the virus of radical nationalism. Well, that’s essentially — and that remains the case. So, as for the Russians, we don’t have to argue about it anymore. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Bush administration in a very important, and therefore unreported, declaration to Congress, explained that everything has to remain exactly the same: same military budget, you know, everything, including the intervention forces aimed at the Middle East, where, as they put it, “the threat to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door.” I mean, “Sorry, guys, we’ve been lying to you for 50 years. But now there’s no Kremlin, so let’s be straight. The threat to our interests is regional unrest, and we’ve got to control it.”

Incidentally, notice that the threat to our interests could not be laid at Iraq’s door either. At that point, Saddam Hussein was a great friend and ally. He had — it’s true he had gassed Kurds and tortured dissidents and massacred people and so on, but he hadn’t yet committed any crimes. The crime was disobedience. That’s a crime. That came a couple of months later. But at that point he was a great friend and ally, and the U.S. continued to support him right through the — you know, these things that maybe you and I would call crimes. It’s interesting to hear, just to switch to another period. Like right now, when the U.S. and its attack dog attack bomb Iraq, the line that you hear from Tony Blair and Madeleine Albright and other distinguished figures is that “We have to do this. How can we let such a creature survive? He even committed the ultimate crime of gassing his own population.” Their willingness to say that over and over expresses extraordinary trust in the educated classes in England and the United States, who they trust not to say what everyone knows: that that can’t possibly be the reason, because we supported Saddam right through those atrocities and continued to increase the support after it. But their trust is warranted, as you can tell by looking at the press and commentary.

Going back here, if you look at the structure of the system of control, you can determine very quickly how policy works. Participants have rights which are commensurate with their role in the system. So, the United States has rights by definition. The junior partner has rights as long as it stays loyal. The same with the Arab façade and the same with the local gendarmes. What about the peasants in Iraq or people in the slums of Cairo? Well, they don’t contribute to the system, so they have no rights. What about the Palestinians? Well, they actually have negative rights. The reason is that they’re a disruptive element. The fact that they were displaced arouses nationalist feelings and causes problems for the façade and the gendarmes and the attack dog. So, therefore their rights are negative. Well, from those — these are just kind of elementary principles of statecraft. You master those, you can predict very easily the way policy develops, and it works quite well.

The end of the Cold War changed nothing, and that was well understood. So, one of the leading Israeli strategic analysts, formerly head of military intelligence, Shlomo Gazit, about a year after the end of the Cold War, wrote that “Israel’s main task has not changed at all, and it remains of central importance.” Israel remains of central importance as “the devoted guardian of stability in the region.” Its role is “to protect the existing regimes,” namely the façade, “to prevent radicalization.” That’s accurate. You have to do a little translation. So, “stability” means U.S. control. And Israel is the devoted guardian of the control of the master, and it’s amply paid for its service. “Radicalism” means misunderstanding of who the first beneficiaries of a country’s resources are. And “fundamentalist religious zealotry” does not — you know, [inaudible] — does not entail that we have to, say, bomb Saudi Arabia or bomb Jerusalem or bomb most of the United States, which is the most extreme, radical, fundamentalist religious state in the world, I suppose. Rather, what it means is this is a code word which means the particular forms of radicalization — that is, failure to understand who the first beneficiaries are — the particular forms of radicalization that happen to take a religious cast when secular nationalism is destroyed. That’s a pretty common pattern. But if you make the translations, what Gazit was saying was certainly accurate.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, well-known political analyst, has written many books on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians.

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