Volume , Number 0
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People's Global Action
Nuclear Nightmare Goes Critical
The Schools We Want
E. Wayne Ross
Signs of a Police State â€¦
Movement Building Is the Only â€¦
In Memory Of Bhopal
An interview with Tahmeena Faryal â€¦
The Threat Of Global State â€¦
Colombia is the third largest â€¦
Airline Layoffs, Worker Concessions
Extending U.S. Dominance
Urgent Patient Tasks
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Extending U.S. Dominance
Michael Albert Interviews Noam Chomsky
In place of our usual editorial, this month we lead off with a Noam Chomsky interview regarding the “war on terrorism.”
MICHAEL ALBERT: Why did the U.S. unleash war instead of pursuing the world court or UN channels, or testing the Taliban's offer to extradite bin Laden?
NOAM CHOMSKY: There is much debate in legal and other intellectual circles as to whether the U.S. actions have been authorized by the ambiguous resolutions of the Security Council. It is all a complete waste of time, in my opinion. The U.S. could easily have obtained clear-cut Security Council authorization for anything it wanted to do, not for attractive reasons: Russia is eager to be welcomed into the “coalition against terror” so as to receive U.S. backing for its atrocious state terrorism in Chechnya; China has similar concerns with regard to its repression of “separatists” in Western China; England goes along reflexively and France has a strong enough imperial legacy to raise no problems. More generally, repressive and violent states throughout the world see a window of opportunity to gain the support of the hegemonic power for their terrorist atrocities, and are therefore eagerly rushing to join the “war against terror.”
But Washington pointedly refused to obtain Security Council authorization, just as it refused to pursue the possibility—perhaps real—of extradition of bin Laden and its associates.
I think that's under
standable. If a Mafia Don wants to collect protection money, he doesn't ask for a Court order first, even if he could obtain it. To do so would indicate that there is some higher authority to which he should defer, and he does not want to entrench that principle. Rather, it is importantto the U.S. to make it clear that there is no higher authority, so that people will be properly intimidated. Much the same is true in international affairs. There's even a technical term for it: maintaining “credibility.” That was the primary official reason given by Clinton, Blair, and others for the bombing of Serbia. It's been invoked in many other cases. One task of intellectuals is to concoct more elevated motives, but the official reasons are often quite candid and realistic. It's important to make clear that there is no higher authority.
The U.S. leadership is committed to “unilateral use of military power” to defend its interests, as the Clinton administration repeatedly insisted, echoing predecessors, both in word and in practice. That's a very natural stand among those who have overwhelming power and feel—for the moment rightly—that they can use it with impunity.
If undermining international law is part of U.S. policy, what about maintaining U.S. credibility as a violent international actor?
It seems to me that undermining international law and maintaining “credibility” go hand in hand. For similar reasons, in its major study of “post-Cold War deterrence,” Clinton's Strategic Command advised that “it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed... That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project.” It is “beneficial” for our strategic posture if “some elements may appear to be potentially “out of control'.” Actual policy conforms reasonably well to prescriptions in internal documents, and it's easy to trace the story far back—not only in the U.S. of course; there are many precedents. These are quite natural attributes of overwhelming power.
A “war on terrorism” has great utility, like the Cold War did, for military spending, domestic redistribution of wealth, justifying repressive legislation, and rationalizing violence against dissidents around the world. Are we in part bombing for the purpose of being able to enjoy the domestic and broader international benefits of a war on terrorism?
That seems to me a reasonable assessment. The Wall Street Journal reported accurately that weapons programs have “become immune” to budget cuts. The U.S. was already outspending the next 15 countries for “defense”—meaning “offense”—before September 11, and that has since sharply increased. In a particularly crude and vulgar fashion, the Administration has exploited the fear and anguish of the population to ram through a wide array of harsh measures that it knows would otherwise arouse popular opposition, ranging from cuts in corporate taxes, to Stalinist-style negotiation authority (“trade enhancement authority,” formerly called “fast track”), to proposals for military tribunals and other means to strengthen the authority of the very powerful state to which “conservatives” are deeply committed. That's no surprise: we were all warning of this, very explicitly, in the first days after September 11.
Again, it's natural. They would try to exploit an earthquake for the same purposes. Systems of power want to extend their domination and control, by any means possible. In class war or other confrontations between concentrated power and the general population, one side pursues its goals relentlessly, using every device it can—appeals to “patriotism,” hysterical diatribes against those who do not toe the line, etc.—to reduce its opponent to passivity and submissiveness. Why should we expect anything different? It's true that within the current Administration there is an element, now with considerable influence, that is rather unusual in its quasi-fascistic commitments, but these are matters of degree. Of course, there is every reason to resist these endeavors, and to refuse to be intimidated and silenced, as always. And there are many opportunities. The general population, as far as I can judge, is much less uniformly jingoistic and submissive than one would conclude from elite articulate opinion, which—again naturally, and with plenty of historical precedents—wants to tame the “great beast,” to borrow Alexander Hamilton's term for the always-dangerous public.
What about oil. Given your own arguments for the importance of oil to U.S. policy in the region, why do you deny that oil is a central motivating factor in this war?
Oil is usually somewhere in the background when actions are undertaken in that part of the world. The Gulf region has by far the largest and most easily-exploitable hydrocarbon reserves, as far as is known. Central Asia is potentially important too, but not on that scale. However, these factors are persistent: they didn't change on September 11. As for a pipeline through Afghanistan, no doubt there is some interest in it, but it is a distinctly secondary concern. Far more significant is continued U.S. control over the primary sources of energy, with the role of Iraq in abeyance for the moment, though sure to become very significant; it is second only to Saudi Arabia in known reserves. And U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have, if anything, been endangered by the war in Afghanistan. Even the most pro-U.S. elements—e.g., Qatar, which just hosted the World Trade Conference—have refused to support the U.S. war and the general population appears to be quite hostile to it, visibly so in the countries that are more free. For such reasons, it seems highly unlikely oil is a central motivating factor.
From the opposite direction, why has the U.S. been willing to pursue policies that may actually endanger oil holdings and oil geopolitics, such as risking opening the Saudi regime to increased internal dissent?
That's an important question. We don't have internal documents, so can only speculate. But it seems that the dominant forces in the administration are confident that their overwhelming monopoly of violence will suffice to keep matters under control. That is also suggested by the huge increase in the military budget, notably the militarization of space programs that are disguised as “missile defense,” and are described quite frankly and openly as intended to create an offensive military capacity of unprecedented power that can be used to intimidate and subdue the growing numbers of “have-nots” produced by the corporate globalization process and to protect commercial interests and investments, much as navies did in earlier eras. There's no secret about any of this. If it is not front-page news, as it should be, that is by choice of the doctrinal institutions.
Turning from causes to effects, reports in past weeks have claimed that up to 7.5 million Afghans would be at risk of starvation if emergency aid was disrupted. Were the estimates exaggerations by Aid organizations or are we witnessing what may become one of the worst human rights violations in the past 100 years, and what can people do to intercede?
Desperately-needed aid has been disrupted or terminated for 3 months, at a crucial time, right before the onset of the severe winter conditions that seriously impede distribution of aid. The reports of conditions among refugees—mostly in the British and other foreign press—are appalling. The actual scale we do not know and, if history is any guide, will never know. There is an important operative principle held by those in power in these matters:
(1) The crimes of official enemies must be investigated with laser-like intensity, on the (very reasonable) principle that one counts not only those who were literally murdered but also the typically far greater numbers who die as a consequence of policy choices.
(2) That practice must be scrupulously avoided in the case of our own crimes and responsibility.
The application of that guiding principle is very easily documented, right to the present moment, sometimes in very dramatic ways. To mention only one of innumerable examples, if 80,000 Kosovars who had been violently driven from their homes were rotting in concentration camps in Serbia, we'd know about it—in fact, we would be at war. But it's not a problem when they are East Timorese in Indonesian camps, because the responsibility traces right back to Washington and London. Kosovo was teeming with forensic investigators seeking to unearth any trace of evidence for crimes of the official enemye. Despite the pleas of the UN, aid organizations, Timorese, and others, forensic investigators were largely withheld from East Timor after simultaneous crimes, which were far more serious by any rational or moral standard. It's depressingly easy to provide additional examples.
We should also bear in mind that people do not die of starvation and exposure instantly; it's not like having your brains blown out. They can survive for a long time on roots and grass. Their malnourished children may die of disease, but to identify the exact cause is not easy. For such reasons, it is a simple matter to disregard one's own crimes, and serious efforts have to be made to highlight those of official enemies.
What can people do? The primary concern should be to try to put maximal pressure on the government to expedite—in fact, allow—massive humanitarian assistance, reaching to as much of the endangered population as possible. The secondary concern should be to try to understand and expose the background factors that have led to this situation, if only to reduce the likelihood that it will unfold again.
Having largely demolished what was left of Afghanistan and having installed the Northern Alliance who everyone previously deemed barbaric, why is the U.S. still obstructing the flow of food to starving Afghan citizens?
I doubt that it is literally “obstructing” the flow. Rather, the matter is probably considered insignificant. I should say that of everything I've said and written about these matters in the past few months, there is one extemporaneous comment in informal remarks that I think was misstated and that I'd like to correct: that the U.S. was “trying” to create a humanitarian catastrophe. To say that is to attribute far too much humanity to the planners and the chorus that sings their praises. If I'm walking down the street and step on an ant, it would be incorrect to say that I “tried” to kill it; rather, I took that possibility to be so insignificant that I paid no attention to it. The same holds in this case. It simply doesn't matter, particularly when planners can have reasonable confidence that the consequences will not be reported or investigated seriously, if the past is any guide.
Is an assault on Iraq likely and/or other targets that continue the appearance of war more likely: Somalia, Sudan, etc.
The successful resort to overwhelming power against defenseless enemies has a bad effect on the character; it's all too easy to find historical precedents. Military success was, in my opinion, predictable, for reasons we discussed months ago and are in print; what was surprising to me was how long the Taliban held out under incredible bombardment. It's been interesting, and ominous, to see how the success of the resort to overwhelming force has been put forth as a justification for it, again hardly for the first time.
Within the Administration, and among elite opinion, there are doubtless those who are eager to exploit the opportunity to attack others, as long as they are defenseless and the attack can be carried out from a distance and with impunity. European governments have been trying hard to restrain these impulses, and much of the world (rightly) fears them, greatly. What will happen depends in large measure on the domestic climate, and for those who oppose such further exercises of violence, the task is action, not speculation—which at best is pretty idle, because of the complexity of the factors involved.
As September 11 has aided the agendas of Bush and Company, haven't the recent terror attacks in Israel aided the Israeli government in escalating attacks on the Palestinians? How do you explain the terror bombings? What can people elsewhere do to try to curtail and reverse the horrible trajectory unfolding in Israel?
All over the world, repressive states—which comes close to meaning “states”—have recognized that they too have a window of opportunity to enhance repression and terror under the rubric of “war against terror.” Israel is no exception, as we have been observing since September 11. The terrorism of the subject population has its roots in their desperation, but explanation is not justification. Apart from being outrageous, these terrorist acts are also a gift to the most harsh and brutal elements in the occupying power and its U.S. backers. You're right about the horrible trajectory, which is deteriorating to tribal warfare with devastating effects for both societies. That said, we must not, of course, overlook the vast asymmetry in power and conditions. We are not observing the 35th year of a harsh and brutal Palestinian occupation of Israel, with the decisive support of the U.S.
There is a lot that we can do. When we read about political assassinations and murder of civilians by Israeli helicopters, we should understand, as the victims do, that these are U.S. helicopters with Israeli pilots, provided in the full knowledge that that is how they are going to be used. The point generalizes, and extends to the diplomatic arena as well. To give one example, consider the Fourth Geneva Convention, established immediately after World War II to formally criminalize Nazi atrocities. The U.S. is among the High Contracting Parties that are bound by solemn treaty obligations to enforce the Convention. Apart from the U.S. and Israel, the world has repeatedly insisted that the Convention applies to the territories that Israel occupies with U.S. support. The same conclusion has been forcefully enunciated by the ICRC, which has the responsibility to oversee application of the Convention. The government of Switzerland is the responsible state authority. In that capacity, it called a conference on the matter for December 5. The conference was boycotted by the U.S. and Israel, and—more surprisingly—Australia, under U.S. pressure, according to the Australian press. The report on the conference in the London Financial Times opened by stating that “The European Union's 15 member states were among 114 countries that yesterday agreed an unprecedented declaration reaffirming the illegality of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and calling on Israel to respect international humanitarian law.” A database search the next day found no reports in the U.S. media (thanks to David Peterson). Occasionally one finds an item reporting that “Palestinians claim” that the Conventions apply to the occupied territories. The true facts can only be unearthed by departing from mainstream sources. That again points to a large variety of actions that we can and should undertake.
In such situations, it is typically the case that each side focuses on the crimes of the other, and the charges are often correct. What outsiders can try to do, when it is possible, is to urge each side to recognize the justice of the contentions of its opponent; that is a preliminary condition for reversing the escalating cycle of violence. Of course, there is not the slightest symmetry in this case, and we are not outsiders, given the crucial and decisive U.S. role in implementing the crimes that were once again condemned by the unreported December 5 declaration.
There has been a massive media celebration of the videotape of bin Laden discussing September 11. Commentators assert that this tape somehow legitimates the bombing of Afghanistan, as if discovering that a vigilante lynching that “collaterally” also took out huge communities of people is somehow legitimated by discovering that the prime target was guilty more or less as charged. Others argue the videotape is a fabrication.
I presume that the tape is authentic. It adds some strength to the prima facie case that bin Laden's network was directly involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks, but leaves open the (not very important) question whether he was personally directing them.
According to what has been publicly released, on Nov. 9, two months after the attacks, bin Laden once again expressed his strong approval for the atrocities, and boasted to an unidentified Saudi sheik that he had foreknowledge of the attacks and was responsible for organizing them. We do not know whether this boast is accurate, any more than we know whether to credit Brzezinski's boast about his role in drawing the Russians into an “Afghan trap” in December 1979, with all the terrible consequences that ensued for the people of Afghanistan and the victims of the terror networks established by the CIA and its associates, including those of Sept. 11. Brzezinski's boast would not suffice to sentence him for the crimes for which he proudly claims responsibility. Maybe such boasts are accurate, maybe not. In both cases they tell us something about the people who make them, but evidence is required to settle the question of accuracy.
Bin Laden also says that “we”—presumably meaning he himself—revealed the operation to the perpetrators “just before they boarded the planes.” It is unclear how he could have done that from a cave in Afghanistan, and the evident implausibility of this claim raises some questions about the accuracy of the boasts in general. But it doesn't really matter very much. If the U.S. feels it has a case against him, it should by all means obtain authorization—as it easily could—to capture him and place him before some credible court. That could be the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, though these are probably excluded because the U.S. rejects their jurisdiction. So perhaps some special tribunal could be set up to deal with this case. How a serious court might treat this evidence is another matter. Whatever the answer, it has no bearing whatsoever on the decision to attack Afghanistan in order to seek revenge against bin Laden and his associates, without regard to the consequences for the population, which were expected to be grim. To evaluate that decision, we consider the evidence available and the goals proclaimed at that time; that's simply a matter of logic.
It's also worth recalling that the goal of overthrowing the Taliban regime by violence was an afterthought, brought up officially in late October, if I recall correctly. In the same connection, I know of no record of any discussion of the stand of leading sectors among anti-Taliban Afghanis, very prominently in the relevant period and indeed considerably later, including their declared opposition to the bombing and pleas that instead of attacking their country, the U.S. should provide support for their efforts to undermine the despised regime from within, which they urged was feasible and in fact showing progress.
In brief, the newly-discovered evidence, however one evaluates it, leaves all significant questions as they were.
That aside, should bin Laden's reaction be a surprise to the West? After all, we know perfectly well that acclaim for huge atrocities and boasts about responsibility for them are quite standard. Consider, for example, the unconstrained euphoria over the 1965 massacres in Indonesia, described with reasonable accuracy in leading journals along with praise for the “Indonesian moderates” who were responsible for the “staggering mass slaughter” (NY Times) and “boiling bloodbath” (Time), and for the leaders in Washington who wisely downplayed their crucial role in expediting the crimes that the CIA compared to those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—though they did take credit for them, quite explicitly and publicly, including proud congressional testimony. Is murdering perhaps a million Indonesians, mostly landless peasants, a lesser crime than September 11? Or consider the no less euphoric response to the victory of the U.S. candidate in the 1990 elections in Nicaragua, conducted under the very clear threat that any other choice would lead to continuation of the economic strangulation and terrorist war that had devastated the country, with grim consequences that were again described fairly accurately, and with unconstrained approval, as we were “United in Joy” over this “Victory for U.S. Fair Play” (NY Times). The story was just replayed, in November of this year, when we were once again “United in Joy” over the victory of the U.S. candidate in Nicaragua, after explicit warnings of dire consequences if voters made the wrong choice in the country that has now declined to second place in the poverty rankings for the hemisphere, after Haiti. By no means the only examples.
So why should we feign surprise that a gangster in a cave in Afghanistan reacts to crimes much in the manner of Western elites, and boasts of his responsibility for them? When such questions as these are addressed honestly, it will be possible to take the “media celebration” seriously; not before.
Many leftists have been immobilized, thinking this is a just war, or that there is no hope to impact outcomes. Obviously you have not succumbed to such views. You keep working to avert catastrophe and to reverse the injustices. Is there anything you would like to say to try to clear the air of these two confusions or any others?
I honestly have nothing to say beyond the obvious. To my knowledge, no one has presented a case for “just war” that does not have extremely serious defects. To be taken seriously, any such argument must be based on principles that we are willing—in fact, insistent—should be applied to our own actions. That is simply a moral truism. I can find no discussion that even approaches this minimal standard. As always, each person has the choice of reflexively succumbing to the demands of the powerful, or of thinking through the circumstances carefully and deciding whether that is the proper stance. If the conclusion is that it is not the proper stance—it rarely is—then we have many options available to us, as we all know perfectly well. Z