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Noam Chomsky & Vijay Prashad on Ukraine, Why U.S. Must Negotiate with Russia & What Media Gets Wrong

StoryOctober 03, 2022
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We speak to world-renowned political dissident Noam Chomsky and political writer Vijay Prashad about the Russian war in Ukraine, now in its eighth month. When it comes to continuing the war rather than negotiating a peace settlement, “the United States and Britain are pretty isolated on this,” says Chomsky. “The United States saw Ukraine as a kind of loose nail under which they place their weapons, billions of dollars of weapons … in order to egg Russia on,” says Prashad. Chomsky and Prashad are co-authors of the new book, “The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power,” which covers failed U.S. foreign policy in recent wars and the importance of seeing beyond dominant media narratives.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman. We continue our conversation with Vijay Prashad and professor Noam Chomsky, who have co-authored the new book, The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power. Juan González and I spoke to them Friday just as the Russian President Vladimir Putin was holding a signing ceremony to mark the annexation of four areas of occupied Ukraine. Later that day, Ukraine would apply for NATO membership. I asked Professor Chomsky about U.S. media coverage of the Ukraine war and how it’s getting it wrong.

NOAM CHOMSKY: To begin with, suggest considerable measure of caution with the way things are being reported in the United States. To take one quite significant case, there’s been a large amount of, you can say, euphoria over the claim that major countries in the world or very important countries in the Global South, of course, claim that Modi, prime minister of India, censured Putin at a meeting in Samarkand, where he told Putin that India does not support the Russian position. If you look — I took the trouble of looking this up on the Indian government official website. What happened is quite different. The Western propaganda has seized upon half a dozen words in which Modi said war is not the answer, and that was taken to be a break with Russia. If you read the rest of the text, practically a love letter to Putin about how wonderful our relations are and how they’ll get even better and how supportive we are of you and so on, that part was left out of — which is practically the whole message, was left out of the Western reporting or the U.S. reporting. So you have to be — it’s one example of many of considerable care that has to be taken.

Fact is that, internationally at least, the United States and Britain are pretty isolated on this. Europe is sort of going along, but the population is not supportive of that position. As I mentioned, over — the most important country, Germany, over three-quarters is in favor of moving to negotiations right away. Same in Slovakia. President Macron of France, who’s been the most dedicated to seeking to find a negotiated settlement, has recently reiterated his belief that though the prospects diminish as the war continues, there are still openings. The United States is — and Britain, its lackey at this point, are pretty much isolated in their commitment to continuing the war, whatever the effects, in order to severely weaken Russia. Are there still negotiation possibilities? There’s only one way to find out. That’s to try. If you refuse to try, of course, there’s no option, no possibilities.

There’s so little reporting about this in the United States that one can say little with confidence, but we do have credible information that there were Russia-Ukraine negotiations under Turkish auspices in April which may have been getting somewhere. As soon as they were announced, Boris Johnson, then prime minister of England, flew to Ukraine and apparently informed Ukraine that the West — meaning the United States and Britain — would not favor negotiations. He was followed directly by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who presumably gave the message that it is — he’s repeated over and over, and that is now official U.S. policy, that the war must continue to weaken Russia severely, and, it follows, that it’s no time for negotiations. Well, none of this can be said with certainty, because there is so little commentary and reporting, and what there is is highly — often highly distorted, as in the important example that I just gave. But the fact is that, sooner or later, there will have to be some kind of negotiated settlement, unless one side or the other just capitulates. That’s virtually logic.

The longer the war goes on, the longer it’s maintained, the more the prospects for a diplomatic settlement diminish. That’s almost automatic. So, before the invasion, there seemed to be pretty good prospects for a settlement more or less in the framework of the Minsk agreement under the auspices of France and Germany, to which Russia and Ukraine theoretically accepted, though didn’t implement it. The U.S. role was, to put it mildly, not constructive in that respect. That’s an understatement. As the war continued, the prospects do diminish, but they’re still there. Late March, President Zelensky produced some proposals, which were not very far from the Macron proposals for settlement, didn’t get anywhere. There was the April case. We don’t know what’s happening since.

The longer the war persists, the more destruction and devastation there will be, the more what’s called collateral damage elsewhere, massive starvation because of the closing off of Black Sea exports — there’s some relaxation of that, but we have little information about it — threat of nuclear war increases, and perhaps most significantly of all, and least discussed, is the fact that as the war continues, the limited efforts to deal with the overwhelming crisis of climate destruction, those reverse. Instead of moving to limit fossil fuels, what’s happening is expansion of fossil fuel production, exuberance in the offices of ExxonMobil, Chevron and the rest, opening new fields for development, expansion of the reduction of restrictions, search for new sources of oil. Some of what’s happening is — I mean, this means basically the end of organized human life on Earth. We’re not talking about something minor. We have a narrow window in which the severe problems of heating the climate can be dealt with. As you close that window more and more, the less are the chances of survival of organized human life on Earth. That’s what we’re facing.

As I say, sometimes what’s happening is simply surreal. You hardly can find words to describe it. Take just a week, last couple of weeks, new scientific reports appeared with regard to the eastern Mediterranean, not very far from Ukraine. They found that projections about what was going to happen in the region were way off, much too conservative. Now new studies indicate that by the end of the century, heating in the eastern Mediterranean region will be about twice as high as what was thought before: 5 degrees Celsius, 10 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s right at the level — it reaches the level of survival. And of course it doesn’t stop there.

Meanwhile, Israeli climatologists, who are quite good, discovered that their own projections of rise in sea level were way off. They were dire enough, but it turns out they were far from accurate. It’s going to be much worse than that. They predicted by midcentury there will be a meter of sea level rise; the end of the century, maybe two to two-and-a-half meters. The effects are indescribable. When you think about that for the two countries — the countries there, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, it’s — can’t even describe it. Meanwhile, what’s happening? Israel and Lebanon are squabbling over who will have the right to administer the coup de grâce, literally. They’re squabbling over who will control the fossil fuel resources on their maritime border — so, who, in other words, will have the opportunity to destroy the two countries while they sink underwater. That’s what’s happening before our eyes. Other areas of the world, as well.

Going back to Ukraine, the longer the war continues, the more the window closes. We move towards increasing fossil fuel production, when we must be minimizing, ending them quickly. That’s the situation that we are facing. Meanwhile, going back to Ukraine, the United States and Britain, following along obediently, are keeping to the principle that the war must continue to severely weaken Russia — meaning no negotiated settlements, with all the consequences that follow. That’s what should be uppermost in our minds, not only because of its significance, but because, of all the factors involved in this complex affair, that’s the one that we have a possibility of influence. We can’t influence what happens in the Kremlin. We can influence what happens in the United States. Again, that should be uppermost in our minds.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Vijay Prashad, I wanted to ask you, in terms — not only in terms of the war in Ukraine, but your book deals interventions of the U.S. — your new book, interventions of the U.S. throughout the world, Afghanistan, Syria. Can you talk about — here we have a situation where less than — about six months after the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, and supposedly the end of our forever wars, we’re embroiled now in the funding and financing of yet another conflict that is shaking the world. Most Americans don’t realize most of this aid money is only going to buy weapons from the U.S. war industry. And, of course, we have on the horizon the next conflict: with China. Talk about this forever war mentality of the United States and the influence of the Pentagon on how the media portrays many of these conflicts.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Juan, let’s just look at some numbers first. Last year, the calculation was that the world’s powers spend $2 trillion — that’s with a T — on weapons. The United States, by itself, spends nearly a trillion dollars, if you add the money in the Department of Energy budget for nuclear weapons and so on. A trillion dollars, $2 trillion globally. Meanwhile, the total budget for the United Nations is $3 billion — that’s with a B. We spend trillions of dollars on weapons and only low billions on peacebuilding. It’s extraordinary. I mean, I want more people to know about these numbers. There’s a habit of warmaking.

Look, you can’t take out Ukraine, lift it out of the earth and put it in Iowa. Ukraine is going to have to live next to Russia. It’s going to have to live there. That’s where it is. The Ukrainians and the Russians have to come to some kind of agreement. You know, the kind of way in which the rhetoric in this war has accelerated, going back to 2014, that rhetorical acceleration is something that even the Ukrainians rejected when Volodymyr Zelensky came before them in the election, because, after all, Mr. Zelensky came to office vowing to make a peace agreement with the Russians, because even he recognizes Ukraine has to live next to Russia.

But the United States saw Ukraine as a kind of loose nail under which they place their weapons, billions of dollars of weapons, much more than the annual budget of the United Nations, in order to egg Russia on. And by the way, it’s not just a matter of Ukraine and Russia coming to some understanding because they do have to live next to each other. And as Noam was saying, in April of this year, they had an interim agreement, which looked a lot like Minsk II, but the West said no. The point, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, is to weaken Russia. You see, the question isn’t Ukraine and Russia by itself. It’s also the United States and Russia.

So, when the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-[Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty in 2019, that was the end, basically, of most of the arms control treaties between the United States and Russia. In fact, since 2019, we’re living without a security guarantee arrangement between these major nuclear powers, the United States and Russia. No wonder that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has brought the Doomsday Clock to within 100 seconds of midnight. You know, it began at seven minutes to midnight; we are now at 100 seconds. And the reason the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists gives for this is the unilateral withdrawal by the United States from basically the entire architecture of arms control with Russia in particular.

So, there’s got to be pressure on the Biden administration not only to back off and allow Zelensky and Putin to talk, to allow them to have some kind of peace agreement that’s, you know, with dignity for all sides, but also the United States needs to go back to the table with the Russians and talk to them. You know, if the United States can talk to the Saudis, in fact, pal up with the Saudis, why can’t they talk to the Russians? It’s ridiculous to say, you know, the Russians are not going to — they are not a good partner, they’re not going to live on agreements and so on. Look who’s talking. The United States is the country that unilaterally walked away from the Iran nuclear deal — not the Iranians, it was the United States. It’s a bit rum to now say that, well, the Russians are not a reliable negotiating partner. At least try it. You know, for God’s sake, for the sake of humanity, we need these major powers with a lot of firepower in their pocket to talk to each other. You can’t turn to the United Nations and say, “Will you do something?” As I said, the U.N. budget is $3 billion. You’ve got to strengthen peacebuilding in the world and weaken warmaking. That has to be part of the commitment of sensitive people around the planet, whether in Russia, in Ukraine, the United States, certainly in the United Kingdom.

AMY GOODMAN: You both talk about allowing Russia and Ukraine to negotiate, but how does one do that? And talk about exactly what the U.S. can do now, Professor Chomsky.

NOAM CHOMSKY: What the U.S. can do is stop acting to prevent negotiations. For a long time — there’s no time to review the record, but the position of the United States has been to try to undermine possibilities of negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident and linguist, and Vijay Prashad, director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. They’ve co-authored the new book, The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power. Noam Chomsky was speaking to us from Brazil. We’ll play more of their interview later this week.

That does it for our show. On Wednesday, I’ll be speaking at Penn State Harrisburg at 7 p.m., and on Thursday, October 6, at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, at 4 p.m.

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That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

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