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An Hour With Noam Chomsky on Iraq, War Profiteers & The Media

StoryDecember 26, 2003
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In a recent speech at Columbia University, Noam Chomsky strongly criticizes the Bush Administration’s war against Iraq. He speaks against the power investors have over world affairs, the media’s capitulation to them and much more. [includes transcript]

Today we spend the hour hearing a speech by famed linguist and political activist: Professor Noam Chomsky.

This past November he delivered a speech entitled “After the War” to a packed theater at Columbia University. The event was dedicated to the memory of renowned scholar, activist and intellectual, Professor Edward Said. He passed away earlier this year after a decade long battle with leukemia.

In his speech, Chomsky strongly criticizes the Bush Administration’s war against Iraq. He speaks against the power investors have over world affairs, the media’s capitulation to them and much more.

Noam Chomsky is an institute professor and professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Hegemony or Survival: America? Quest For Global Dominance, 9-11, Power and Terror and many other books. He spoke at Miller Theater on November 20th, 2003.

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

NOAM CHOMSKY: The first remark has to do with the title. The title that was announced was after the war, which is a good topic. We should be concerned with what is coming ahead, but any title like that, especially in the United States requires kind of a word of caution. There is a trap which is deeply rooted in the intellectual culture, and we have to avoid it. The trap is the doctrine that I sometimes call the doctrine of change of course. It’s a doctrine that’s invoked every two or three years in the United States. The content of the doctrine is yes, in the past, we did some wrong things because of our innocence or out of inadvertence, but now that’s all over, so we can’t not waste any more time on this boring, stale stuff, which incidentally we suppressed and denied while it was happening, but must now be effaced from history as we march forward to a glorious future. And if you look, it is literally every two or three years that the doctrine is invoked. There is a qualification. We are permitted, in fact, required to recall with great horror the misdeeds of official enemies, and we’re also required to admire with awe, our own magnificent achievements in the past in both categories, relying in no small measure on self-serving reconstructions, which quickly collapse if you follow the path of paying attention to the facts, but fortunately, that dangerous course is excluded by the convenient doctrine of change of course, which blocks any such heresies. The doctrine is entirely understandable on the part of those who are engaged in criminal enterprises, which means just about any power system, any system of concentrated power past and present, and of course, it includes its acolytes, one of the major commitments of respected intellectuals right throughout history is to be the acolytes of the systems of power.

Since intellectuals write history, but it doesn’t look like that, you have to be cautious about what people write about themselves. If you look carefully, you will find that the course — the doctrine is dishonest, cowardly, but has advantages. It does protect us from the danger of understanding what’s happening before our eyes, and, therefore, inducing the kind of conformism that is useful to systems of power and domination. So, it has its advantages. In any event, the word after in the title is appropriate but with some qualifications that should be kept in mind. And what has happened before, if we escape the domination of the doctrine, what has happened before can be expected to persist for elementary reasons. Policies and actions are rooted in institutions. There’s some variation, but limited. The institutions are stable. Therefore, it’s only reasonable to expect the policies and actions to persist, adopt adapted to circumstances. If you want to understand anything about the world that is to come, and have any influence on the way it evolves, more than useful to keep this in mind. Well, let’s go to after the war. We might as well, adopting the doctrine of change of course, we might as well start with today. So, today our leader is in London. The mayor of London greeted him by declaring that George Bush is the greatest threat to life on the planet that we have most probably ever seen. As I walked in, I was told by someone that they just heard over the radio that someone else I forget who, announced that he is the most unwelcome visitor to England since William the Conqueror. These sentiments are described here as rather — met with some surprise, but that reflects again the useful category of the useful quality of forgetting the recent past. Similar sentiments have been very widely expressed since September, 2002, to some extent before, but particularly since then.

Within weeks after September, 2002, a crucial moment in world affairs, within weeks even the mainstream U.S. press was compelled to report that the world now regards George Bush as a greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein. That fact is an understatement because much as Saddam Hussein was hated and reviled, he was not regarded as a threat. Even by the countries that he had attacked, Iran and Kuwait, both of which understood perfectly well that after a decade of sanctions that had devastated the society, and after having been effectively disarmed, however awful Saddam Hussein was, he wasn’t going to threaten anybody. In fact, it was the weakest country in the region. One of the reasons why it was attacked, it met the primary conditions for target of attack, it was defenseless and known to be. In fact, they had joined the other states in the region in trying to integrate Iraq back into the region for several years over strong U.S. objections. So, the statement, while correct is understated. These kinds of reactions that you hear today and you have been hearing for the past year if you pay attention, are as far as I’m aware, are entirely without precedent. I can’t remember anything like them. And how one decides to evaluate the sentiments that are expressed, one thing is clear, no sane person should ignore them.

Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a European Union poll which aroused some interest here. The poll was asking Europeans what they thought was the greatest threat to world peace, and it turned ed out that the United States was ranked right next to North Korea and Iraq, same percentage. Well, that was felt to be a surprise, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise, because that’s what polls have been showing for a year, over a year, growing concern and fear that the United States is out of control under the present leadership, and is a tremendous threat to peace. Actually, the poll — the commentary on the poll focused on something else, namely, the U.S., North Korea, and Iran were ranked right below Israel, which was ranked as the greatest threat to peace. But my strong suspicion is that that’s because the questions in the poll were wrongly asked. You have to be really careful reading polls. Israel in itself is not a threat–much of a threat at all, but U.S. support for Israel is an enormous threat to world peace. And I presume that that’s what people were answering. However, the question was phrased, and if that’s correct, then the major threat perceived to world peace in Europe are U.S. support for Israel, which is the regional superpower and the U.S. actions elsewhere in the world. Well, if that’s the right interpretation, then the polls are reflecting an understanding of phenomena that are real and important and widely understood. They were just pointed out in a important book that is about to appear by Dilip Hero, one of the most astute and knowledgeable commentator, historians dealing with the contemporary Middle East and the international framework in which its problems arise. What he says is -about–after the war, the book’s about the Iraq war, and its consequences. He says, that has actually happened in Iraq is something deadlier than the worst scenarios sketched by the so-called liberal pessimists. The invasion of Iraq has led to an alliance of Arab nationalism with Islamic militancy steering both of them towards an amalgam, which is very ominous for the region and in fact for the world. Again, today’s newspapers give you or examples of that. That’s another contributing factor to this extremely dangerous amalgam is U.S. support for Israel’s continued rejection of a long-standing international consensus on a political settlement for the Israel-Palestine issue, and its ongoing actions to undermine any possibility that a political settlement can be reached. Always crucially with decisive U.S. support, otherwise those actions are impossible for. For 30 years now, the U.S. has been unilaterally, and that’s worth stressing, unilaterally blocking the possibility of a political settlement and providing the decisive diplomatic, economic and military means that permit the actions that step by step make any such settlement impossible. That’s dramatically true right now. It’s all consistently suppressed in the doctrinal system, and now of course, it’s to be–if even mentioned, eliminated from history by the usual means, the convenient doctrine of change of course. Well, this has been decisive for 30 years, and it’s going on, and we should pay attention to it if we care about the future. Today’s news again gives further reasons.

With regard to Iraq, the predictions before the war by intelligence agencies and independent analysts were pretty uniform. It was predicted that the invasion of Iraq would increase the threat of terror, and would yield the amalgam that Dilip Hero is talking about. It would increase the terror and of proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction. The logic of that is straight-forward. If you announce to people I’m going to come and attack you, at will without any pretext, they don’t say thank you. Here’s’ my neck, cut it. What they do is respond in some fashion. No one can respond to the United States in military force. The U.S. spends about as much by now as the rest of world combined, and it is far more technologically advanced, so people turn to the weapons available to them, and the weak do have weapons available to them. Two, in fact, terror and weapons of mass destruction, which are now not that hard to construct. Sooner or later it, will be united. For example, they might be united in a small nuclear weapon sneaked into a New York Hotel room. Not at all out of the question. And by inciting terror and inciting proliferation, as a deterrent or for revenge, those probabilities are being increased. Well, those were the predictions before the Iraq war, and there have been — they have been verified, not surprisingly, since the war. It has apparently been, according to specialists on the various countries involved, stimulated proliferation, not surprisingly, and it has certainly stimulated terror. The same intelligence agencies and independent analysts are reporting a sharp spike in recruitment for Al Qeada-style organizations, and if you pay attention and you observe an increase of horrendous terrorist acts all over the world.

Exactly as predicted, the administration was certainly aware of this. I mean they can figure it out themselves even without reading the reports of their own intelligence agencies, and they don’t desire that outcome, but they don’t care that much. It just has a low priority, ranked alongside of other concerns. And those other concerns are not insignificant. Some of them are domestic. These are not conservatives. They are radical reactionary statists, who are dedicated to unraveling the progressive achievements, legislation and actions of the past century, and to do that, they have a very narrow hold on political power. They must maintain it in order to carry out that program. You see it day by day in the legislations produced and the actions undertaken and they have an international program, which has been announced, dominating the world by force, permanently, preventing any challenge, and in particular, controlling the very crucial energy resources of the world. Mostly in the Middle East, secondarily in Central Asia and a few other places. Those are serious goals and they are worth undertaking from the perspective of the policy managers, even if it does increase the threat of destruction, in fact maybe the destruction of the species, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the stimulation of terror to which the population of the United States will also be subject as before. How do Iraqis feel about all of this? That’s critically important and much harder to determine. It’s harder to determine the attitudes of people under military occupation, but it’s not impossible. There’s a series of U.S.-run polls taking place. They’re informative, so one recent poll actually had a front page story in the New York Times, with a headline saying that Iraqis are pleased to be rid of Saddam Hussein. Well, we didn’t need a poll to tell us that. And presumably, although the question wasn’t asked. Are they happy to be relieved of the murderous U.S. sanctions, which had killed hundreds of thousands of people, devastated the society, and reduced it to total ruin? That question wasn’t asked because you’re not allowed to mention it. You’re not allowed to mention that this took place. We don’t consider our own massive crimes there. The doctrine of change, of course, is so extreme that you don’t even mention it while it’s going on, let alone in the past. So, that question wasn’t asked. And what that almost predictable answer wasn’t mentioned. Also unmentioned is the fact that the murderous sanctions are a large part of the reason why Iraqis were unable to send Saddam Hussein to the same fate that greeted other comparable monsters and tyrants and torturers who were also supported by the people who are now in office in Washington, just as they supported Saddam Hussein right through his worst atrocities and long after the war with Iran.

There’s quite a rogue’s gallery of, Ceausescu of Romania, the Saddam supported by the Reagan and Bush administrations right through the last minute overthrown from within and the same is true of a long list. The Marcos, Duvalier, Mubutu, Suharto, a long list, all strongly supported, as long as they could maintain power, overthrown from within, ranking easily many of them, with Saddam Hussein in brutality and terror, but if you destroy a society, and you compel the society to rely on the tyrant just for survival, and things like that are not going to happen. This has been understood for a long time, and again, those are some of the things that you just don’t mention just like you don’t mention the effects of the sanctions. Well, there was more interesting aspect of the poll in the headline. If you read down further in the column, there were other results given.

One of the questions asked in the same poll was–people were asked for their–how they evaluated foreign leaders, favorability ranking. Do you have a favorable opinion of x, y and z? The one who ranked highest was by far was French president Jacques Chirac. He was the international symbol of opposition to the invasion. Well below him, you found Bush, and even below him, the rather pathetic Blair, trailing behind. That was reported without comment, although evidently, The New York Times reporter had some–bothered him a little and he came back to it a couple of weeks later and mentioned it in another context and had a comment on it. He gave the figures. His comment was “go figure.” Well, I’m not sure how exactly how to interpret that, but I presume what he meant is crazy Arabs. Go figure. Here we liberate them, and they are not thanking us for liberating them. What can it possibly mean, if they regard Jacques Chirac as the most–give him the most highest favorable ranking of any foreign leader. Well, you know, figure Columbia students might be able to figure out a different interpretation, but anyway for the Times it was, “go figure.” Turning to another poll where this question was asked recently. How do you regard the coalition forces? Are they an occupying force or a liberating force? By five to one, they were called–an occupying force. Should the coalition forces leave? By five to three, Iraqis wanted them to leave. That’s a remarkable figure, because about 95% of the population also reports that the security situation is much worse than it was before the invasion. And the only thing that’s keeping any kind of a lid on it is the occupying forces. But nevertheless, by a very substantial majority, they want them to leave. Well, what does that mean? Again, you can figure it out. Other polls ask people why did the United States invade Iraq? Well, here it’s worth–in the United States, there’s some straight answers. So the official reason that widely repeated as long as you can hang on to, is that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and their links to terror, which was such a threat to us that we had invade it.

And then there was a massive government propaganda campaign in September of 2002 when the invasion was effectively announced and it did drive a large part of the U.S. population completely off the international spectrum. The United States was the only country where a large part of the population was genuinely afraid of Saddam Hussein, because of his weapons of mass destruction, and his links to terror. It turns out that the people who had those attitudes, those attitudes are strongly correlated with support for the war. Which is not in the least surprising. If I believed those things, I would support the war, too. I mean, if you believe that here is a murderous tyrant accumulating weapons of mass destruction, responsible for 9-11, linked to Al qaeda, planning new terror, we have to stop him in time, there’s a rational decision to invade Iraq. Of course, there never was any reason to believe there was a particle of truth to that. As I say, the U.S. was alone in having any detectable part of the population even have those opinions. Even in places like Iran and Kuwait. The lying about that continues until the present. It doesn’t matter that it was all debunked. So George Bush in his radio addresses a couple of weeks ago, he continues to repeat that the U.S., I’m quoting him, “saved the world from a tyrant, who was developing weapons of mass destruction, and cultivating ties to terror.” Well, you know, nobody believes that, including his speechwriter, but they know something else. They know that if you keep repeating a lie long and loud enough, and nobody takes you to account for it, it will become truth. There are plenty of precedents for that. Not pretty ones to think about, but they’re there and you know them so I won’t go on with it. It accounts for the reactions that you hear around the world. The collapse of the official stories about weapons of mass destruction and terror, they did have consequences. In a fact, ominous consequences. The most significant consequence of the collapse of the story about weapons of mass destruction was that it changed the official doctrine. All of this is taking place in the context of the national security strategy that was announced in September, 2002. That strategy was based on the principle that if a country has weapons of mass destruction, the United States is entitled to attack it in anticipatory self-defense.

What’s called in the press and some commentary preemptive war but that’s a total fabrication. It has nothing to do with preemptive war, it’s just a euphemism for direct aggression. As Arthur Schelinger pointed out, preemption means something and nothing like that. But that was the doctrine, whenever you think about it, the doctrine has been changed. With the discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction, the doctrine has been changed so that now the United States has the right and authority, sovereign right, to attack any country that has the intent and ability to develop weapons of mass destruction. Okay. That’s a significant change, that lowers the wars on aggression very significantly. And in fact, it makes it universal. Every country has the ability to develop weapons of mass destruction, any country with a high school chemistry and biology lab has the capacity. Intent is in the eye of the beholder. You don’t need evidence for it. So what that’s saying in effect is everybody’s liable to attack. We have the sovereign right to attack anyone we want. That’s a significant change in the doctrine. Even if it’s not reported here, it’s noticed by the potential victims, and the potential victims are now generalized–essentially universally. Another consequence of the collapse of the official reasons is that there’s a new–you know, there’s a new doctrine about why we went to war. It was a reflection of what the press calls our yearning for democracy. That’s a term that became prominent in the Reagan years, yearning for democracy. And so we invaded Iraq in order to establish a democracy there, because our yearning for democracy, and in fact, to democratize the Middle East and so on. If you read the commentary on this, the press, journals and 0 on, I think you will discover that this assumption is close to universal.

Even the critics, strongest critics say, yes, we invaded to create democracy, but premature, can’t do it, circumstances are not right. One criticism or another, sometimes the repetition of this assumption reaches the level of really rapturous acclaim, fact that you may remember from, you know, reading the North Korean press, if you look at it. David Ignatius, the highly respected leading commentator in The Washington Globe recently described the invasion of Iraq as the most idealistic war fought in modern times, fought solely to bring democracy to Iraq and the region and you know, how can you be more noble than that? He was particularly impressed with Paul Wolfowitz, the grand visionary of the yearning for democracy, who he describes as a genuine intellectual whose heart bleeds for the oppressed in the Muslim world, and who dreams of liberating it? So, presumably, that explains his career, like his very strong support for Suharta in Indonesia, one of the worst mass murderers and killers and aggressors. Wolfowitz was ambassador to Indonesia, and he had full support for his friend, Suharto, and that goes right up to 1997, a couple of months before Suharta was overthrown by an internal revolution.

However, it’s only fair to say that Wolfowitz’s support for democracy and yearning–you know, his heart bleeding for the tortured victims is ecumenical. It’s not limited to Muslims. He had the same attitude–he was the high official in the state department under Reagan concerned with Asian affairs, and that support extended to the brutal, vicious dictator–Chun, of South Korea, who despite the support of the Reagan administration to the very end, was overthrown by a mass popular movement in 1987. It extends to Marcos in the Philippines. The Reagan administration was full of what they called love for Marcos and his love of democracy, and that continued until he was overthrown to the end. All of this is on Wolfowitz’s watch. And it continues, I won’t go on with it. But all of this is irrelevant because of the convenient doctrine of change of course. So, yes, he is a grand visionary who loves democracy, and his heart bleeds for the victims of oppression, and if there’s a record that shows precisely the opposite, it’s just that boring old stuff which we forget about, because that’s now we’re going on to the future. I don’t know how far back the doctrine of change of course extends, but if it extend as few months, then there’s some other things that you might mention. So, for example, Wolfowitz dramatically illustrated his love of democracy earlier this year when he berated the Turkish military for failing to intervene to prevent the elected government from keeping to the position of 95% of the population. About 95% of the population was opposed to participation in the U.S. war in Iraq, and surprisingly, the elected government went along with them, which caused absolute fury in the United States. Powell instantly announced they were going to be harshly punished for this, cutting back aid and so on. That they were denounced all over the press. Former ambassador, Morton Abramowitz wrote an article saying this proves that the government lacks democratic credentials because it’s not listening to orders from Crawford and Washington.

It’s following 95% of the population, but Wolfowitz went even beyond denouncing the military for not intervening, and demanding that they apologize to the United States for this, and recognize that their duty is, as he put it, to help the United States. Now, that’s real commitment to democracy. That’s a couple of months ago. It’s an extenuation of Wolfowitz, one might say this was in the midst of a display of hatred and contempt for democracy of a sort that I have never seen in the past. It was so obvious that you cannot ignore it, all connected with the same insistence of a few governments on keeping to the overwhelming position of their population. Bitterly condemned for this across the spectrum. The ones that were hailed were the ones disregarded even larger percentages of their population. They were the bold new Europe, the wave of the future. A great Churchillian figures like Burlesconi, for example. I have never seen anything like that. And what’s astonishing and revealing to us, and important for the future is that this display of total hatred for democracy went side by side with a chorus of self-adulation about our yearning for democracy. I mean, to be able to carry that off is a very impressive achievement, not only of the media, but of educated intellectuals generally. I think it would be hard to mimic that totalitarian state. You might want to think about it and what it means.

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