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International Socialist Review Issue 20, November-December 2001
David Basamian interviews Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky, a longtime political activist, writer, and professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of numerous books and articles on U.S. foreign policy, international affairs, and human rights. His latest book is Propaganda and the Public Mind (South End Press, 2001), a collection of interviews with David Barsamian.
David Barsamian is the producer of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado. A complete version of this interview, which took place on September 20, 2001, has been published in Monthly Review. Reprinted with permission.
The media have been noticeably lacking in providing a context and a background for the attacks on New York and Washington. What might be some useful information that you could provide?
There two categories of information that are particularly useful because there are two distinct, though related, sources for the attack. Let's assume that the attack was rooted somehow in the bin Laden network. That sounds plausible, at least, so let's say it's right.
If that's right, there are two categories of information and of populations that we should be concerned with, linked but not identical. One is the bin Laden network. That's a category by itself. Another is the population of the region. They're not the same thing, although there are links.
What ought to be in the forefront is discussion of both of those. The bin Laden network--I doubt if anybody knows it better than the CIA, since they were instrumental in helping construct it. This is a network whose development started in 1979, if you can believe President Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. He claimed, maybe he was just bragging, that in mid-1979 he had instigated secret support for mujahideen fighting against the government of Afghanistan in an effort to draw the Russians into what he called an "Afghan trap," a phrase worth remembering. He's very proud of the fact that they did fall into the Afghan trap by sending military forces to support the government six months later, with consequences that we know.
The U.S., along with Egypt, Pakistan, French intelligence, Saudi Arabian funding--Israel was involved--assembled a major army, a huge mercenary army, maybe 100,000 or more, and they drew from the most militant sectors they could find, which happened to be radical Islamists--what are called here "Islamic fundamentalists"--from all over, most of them not from Afghanistan. They're called "Afghanis," but like bin Laden, they come from elsewhere.
Bin Laden joined very quickly. He was involved in the funding networks, which probably are the ones which still exist. They were trained, armed, organized by the CIA, Pakistan, Egypt, and others to fight a holy war against the Russians. And they did. They fought a holy war against the Russians. They carried terror into Russian territory. They may have delayed the Russian withdrawal, a number of analysts believe, but they did win the war and the Russian invaders withdrew.
The war was not their only activity. In 1981, groups based in that same network assassinated President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, who had been instrumental in setting it up. In 1983, one suicide bomber, maybe with connections to the same networks, essentially drove the U.S. military out of Lebanon. And it continued.
By 1989, they had succeeded in their holy war in Afghanistan. As soon as the U.S. established a permanent military presence in Saudi Arabia [in 1990], bin Laden and the rest announced that from their point of view, that was comparable to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and they turned their guns on the Americans, as had already happened in 1983 when the U.S. had military forces in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia is a major enemy of the bin Laden network, just as Egypt is. That's what they want to overthrow, what they call the un-Islamic governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, other states of the Middle East and North Africa. And it continued.
In 1997, they murdered roughly 60 tourists in Egypt and destroyed the Egyptian tourist industry. And they've been carrying out activities all over the region, North Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, for years. That's one group. And that is an outgrowth of the U.S. wars of the 1980s and, if you can believe Brzezinski, even before, when they set the Afghan trap. There's a lot more to say about them, but that's one part.
Another is the people of the region. They're connected, of course. The bin Laden network and others like them draw a lot of their support from the desperation and anger and resentment of the people of the region, which ranges from rich to poor, secular to radical Islamist. The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, has run a couple of articles on attitudes of wealthy Muslims, the people who most interest them: businessmen, bankers, professionals, and others throughout the Middle East region who are very frank about their grievances. They put it more politely than the poor people in the slums and the streets, but it's clear. Everybody knows what [their grievances] are.
For one thing, they're very angry about U.S. support for undemocratic, repressive regimes in the region and U.S. insistence on blocking any efforts toward democratic openings. You just heard on the news, it sounded like the BBC, a report that the Algerian government is now interested in getting involved in this war. The announcer said that there had been plenty of Islamic terrorism in Algeria, which is true, but he didn't tell the other part of the story, which is that a lot of the terrorism is apparently state terrorism. There's pretty strong evidence for that. The government, of course, is interested in enhancing its repression and will welcome U.S. assistance in this.
In fact, [the Algerian] government is in office because it blocked the democratic election in which it would have lost to mainly Islamic-based groups. That set off the current fighting. Similar things go on throughout the region.
The "moneyed Muslims" interviewed by the Journal also complained that the U.S. has blocked independent economic development by "propping up oppressive regimes." That's the phrase they used. But the prime concern stressed in the Wall Street Journal articles and by everybody who knows anything about the region--the prime concern of the "moneyed Muslims," [who are] basically pro-American, incidentally--is the dual U.S. policies, which contrast very sharply in their eyes, toward Iraq and Israel.
In the case of Iraq, for the last 10 years the U.S. and Britain have been devastating the civilian society. Madeleine Albright's famous statement about how maybe half a million children have died, and it's a high price but we're willing to pay it, that doesn't sound too good among people who think that maybe it matters if half a million children are killed by the U.S. and Britain. And meanwhile [the sanctions are] strengthening Saddam Hussein. So that's one aspect of the dual policy.
The other aspect is that the U.S. is the prime supporter of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory, now in its thirty-fifth year. It's been harsh and brutal from the beginning, extremely repressive. Most of this hasn't been discussed here, and the U.S. role has been virtually suppressed. It goes back 25 years of blocking diplomatic initiatives. Even simple facts are not reported.
For example, as soon as the current fighting began last September 30, Israel immediately, the next day, began using U.S. helicopters (they can't produce helicopters) to attack civilian targets. In the next couple of days they killed several dozen people in apartment complexes and elsewhere. The fighting was all in the Occupied Territories, and there was no Palestinian fire. The Palestinians were using stones. So this is people throwing stones against occupiers in a military occupation, legitimate resistance by world standards, insofar as the targets are military.
Your comment [made in an unpublished part of this interview-ed.] that the U.S. is a "leading terrorist state" might stun many Americans. Could you elaborate on that?
The U.S. is the only country that was condemned for international terrorism by the World Court [for its actions in Nicaragua] and that rejected a [UN] Security Council resolution calling on states to observe international law. It continues international terrorism.
That example's the least of it. And there are also what in comparison are minor examples. Everybody here was quite properly outraged by the Oklahoma City bombing, and for a couple of days, the headlines all read, "Oklahoma city looks like Beirut." I didn't see anybody point out that Beirut also looks like Beirut, and part of the reason is that the Reagan administration had set off a terrorist bombing there in 1985 that was very much like Oklahoma City, a truck bombing outside a mosque timed to kill the maximum number of people as they left. It killed 80 and wounded 200, aimed at a Muslim cleric who they didn't like and who they missed. It was not very secret.
I don't know what name you give to the attack that's killed maybe a million civilians in Iraq and maybe a half a million children--which is a price the secretary of state says we're willing to pay. Is there a name for that?
Supporting Israeli atrocities is another one. Supporting Turkey's crushing of its own Kurdish population, for which the Clinton administration gave the decisive support--80 percent of the arms, escalating as atrocities increased--is another. Or take the bombing of the Sudan, one little footnote, so small that it is casually mentioned in passing in reports on the background to the September 11 crimes.
How would the same commentators react if the bin Laden network blew up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S. and the facilities for replenishing them? Or Israel? Or any country where people matter? Although that's not a fair analogy, because the U.S. target is a poor country which had few enough drugs and vaccines to begin with and can't replenish them. Nobody knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of deaths resulted from that single atrocity, and to bring up that death toll is considered scandalous. If somebody did that to the U.S. or its allies, can you imagine the reaction?
Or to return to "our own little region over here," as Henry Stimson called it, take Cuba. After many years of terror beginning in late 1959, including very serious atrocities, Cuba should have the right to resort to violence against the U.S. according to U.S. doctrine that is scarcely questioned. It is, unfortunately, all too easy to continue, not only with regard to the U.S. but also other terrorist states.
The U.S. is officially committed to what is called "low-intensity warfare." That's the official doctrine. If you read the definition of low-intensity conflict in army manuals and compare it with official definitions of "terrorism" in army manuals, or the U.S. Code, you find they're almost the same.
Terrorism is the use of coercive means aimed at civilian populations in an effort to achieve political, religious, or other aims. That's what the World Trade Center bombing was, a particularly horrifying terrorist crime. And that's official [U.S. government] doctrine. I mentioned a couple of examples. We could go on and on.