International Socialist Review Issue 32, NovemberDecember 2003
A conversation with Noam Chomsky: Telling the truth about imperialism
Interviewed by David Barsamian
NOAM CHOMSKY, internationally renowned MIT professor, has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for more than four decades. He is in such demand as a public speaker that he is often booked years in advance. And wherever he appears, he draws huge audiences. The Guardian calls him, "One of the radical heroes of our age." He is the author of Power and Terror and Middle East Illusions. His latest book is Hegemony or Survival. Hes done a series of interview books with David Barsamian, including most recently The Common Good and Propaganda and the Public Mind.
David Barsamian is the director and producer of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He recently published Culture and Resistance, a book of interviews with Edward Said.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: REGIME CHANGE is a new term in the lexicon. Kind of like change of address. It sounds somewhat innocuous. It certainly sounds a lot better than invasion, overthrow and occupation. The U.S. is an old hand at regime change. Were in a year that marks a couple of anniversaries. Today is the 30th anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup in Chile. October 25 marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Grenada. But Im particularly thinking of regime change in Iran. 50 years ago, in August 1953, Operation Ajax, carried out by a CIA agent who was incidentally Teddy Roosevelts grandson, overthrew the conservative parliamentary democracy led by Mohammed Mossadeq and restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne, where he ruled for the next 25 years.
NOAM CHOMSKY: THE ISSUE was that the conservative nationalist parliamentary government was attempting to take over its own oil resources. These had been under the control of a British company originally called Anglo-Persian, later called Anglo-Iranian, which had entered into contracts with the rulers of Iran that were just pure extortion and robbery. The Iranians got nothing and the British were laughing all the way to the bank. Mossadeq had a long history as a critic of this subordination of imperial policy. Popular outbursts compelled the Shah to appoint him as prime minister, and he moved to nationalize the industry, which makes perfect sense.
The British went completely berserk. They refused to make any compromises. They wouldnt even come near what the American oil companies had just agreed to in Saudi Arabia. They wanted to continue just robbing the Iranians blind. And that led to a tremendous popular uprising. Iran has a democratic tradition. It had a majlis, parliament, which had always been suppressed. But the Shah couldnt suppress it; the army tried and couldnt. Finally a joint British-American coup did succeed in organizing an overthrow of the regime, and restored the Shah to power. Then comes 25 years of terror, atrocities, violence, finally leading to the revolution in 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah.
Incidentally, one outcome of the coup was that the United States took over from Britain about 40 percent of the share in Iranian oil. It had been 100 percent British. That wasnt actually the goal of the effort, its just in the normal course of events. But it was part of the general displacement of British power by U.S. power in that region, and in fact, throughout the world. Just sort of a normal reflection of the distribution of power elsewhere. The New York Times had a nice editorial about it, in which they praised the coup, and said, "Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism." And it should teach other Mossadeqs elsewhere in the world that they should be careful before trying to do something like going "berserk" and gaining control of their own resources, which of course are ours, not theirs.
But your point is quite correct. Regime change is normal policyin fact, its even perfectly conceded. So, for example, maybe five years ago during the Clinton administration, the European Union (EU) brought to the World Trade Organization (WTO) a complaint against the United States, for the extended economic warfare against Cuba, which extended to secondary boycotts that are illegal under every possible interpretation of international law and have been condemned by every relevant institution. The EU brought it to the WTO as a restraint of trade and the Clinton administration simply told them, Europe is challenging policies of ours that go back to 1959 and which are aimed at overthrowing the government of Cuba (regime change) and Europe has no business interfering in the internal affairs of the United States like this. Actually, the State Department or whoever wrote that didnt know their own history very well. If you go back to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, there was a period of real frenzy about regime change, which almost led to nuclear war. Internally, the reason given by U.S. intelligence for regime change, overthrowing the Castro regime, was that the very existence of the Castro regime was successful defiance of a policy of the United States of 150 years, back to the Monroe Doctrine. The policy of the United States is that we are the masters of the hemisphere and the very existence of the Castro regime is successful defiance of this, so of course we have to overthrow it by a campaign of large-scale terror and economic warfare. Whats interesting about this particular remark is that its shortly after that terrorist campaign, which was quite serious, aimed at regime change, and almost led the world to a terminal nuclear war. It was a very close thing.
RIGHT AFTER the First World War, the British replaced the Turks as the rulers of Iraq. They occupied the country, and faced, as one report says, "anti-imperialist agitation...from the start." A revolt "became widespread." The British felt it wise to put up a façade. Lord Curzon, the foreign secretary, said Britain wanted an "Arab façade ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, by an Arab staff." Just fast-forward today to Iraq, with a 25-person ruling council appointed by the American viceroy, Paul Bremer.
ACTUALLY, LORD Curzon was very honest in those days. It was an Arab façade, and then they went on, Britain would rule behind a veil of "constitutional fictions" like "buffer state" and various other terms, but it would basically be an Arab façade. And thats the way Britain ran the whole region, in fact, the whole empire. The idea is to have independent states, but always weak governments that rely on the imperial power for their survival. And they can rip off the population if they like, thats fine. But they have to be a façade, behind which the real power rules. Thats standard imperialism. Lord Curzon was simply being a little more honest than most.
You can find plenty of examples. Paul Bremer is one. There was a wonderful organization chart, published in the New York Times. It might have been around May 7th, just after Bremer was appointed. Unfortunately its not in the archived edition so you have to look back at the hard copy, but it had a chart with something like 16 or 17 boxes. Its a standard organization chart, somebody at the top and lines going down. At the top is Paul Bremer, answering to the Pentagon, and then you go down various lines and you get to various generals and diplomats, all either U.S. or British. And each one of them has the name, the responsibility of the office in boldface in a big box, and then you get down to the bottom and theres a 17th box at the bottom, half the size of the others, no boldface, no indication of responsibility. And this says, "Iraqi Advisors." Thats the façade. It was a mistake to publish itI suppose thats why they didnt archive it, but that expresses the thinking, and Lord Curzon would have felt it quite normal.
Its not clear that they can handle it because, I should say, to my amazement, the occupation is not succeeding. It takes real talent to fail in this. For one thing, military occupations almost always work. The Nazis in occupied Europe had very little trouble running the countries with collaborators. Every country had plenty of collaborators who ran the place as a façade and kept order and kept the population down. Thats at the extreme level of brutality in history. Furthermore, they were under attack from the outside and the resistance was being directed and supported from abroad, rather like the Nazis claimed: "terrorists supported from abroad, directed from London." Even the most grotesque propaganda usually has some element of truth.
Nevertheless, if it hadnt been for the fact that they were crushed by overwhelming outside force, they wouldnt have had any trouble running occupied Europe. The Russians had very little problem running Eastern Europe through façades, and again, thats another very brutal regime. In fact, if you look through history, it usually works. The cases where there are uprisings against imperial rule are pretty rare. It happens, but its not the norm.
Furthermore, this is an unusually easy case. Heres a country that has been devastated by a decade of murderous sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left the whole place in tatters and held together by Scotch tape. Devastated by wars. Run by a brutal tyrant. Its hard not to do better than that. The idea that you cant get a military occupation to run under these circumstances, and of course, with no support from outside for the resistance. None. I think its almost unimaginable. I imagine if we got a couple of people on this floor together here at MIT they could probably figure out how to get the electricity running. So it is an astonishing failure, and it certainly surprises me. So their original planning, as illustrated in that organization chart, amazingly doesnt look like its going to work. Which is why you get all this backtracking about trying to get the UN to come in and pick up some of the costs, and the domestic opposition. Its a big surprise to me. I thought this would be a walkover.
TALK ABOUT another aspect of British imperialism. In the title essay of Towards a New Cold War, which has just been reissued by the New Press, you wrote about Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the leaders of the opposition to British rule in India. He observed that the ideology of British rule in India, "was that of the herrenvolk and the Master Race, an idea that is inherent in imperialism and was proclaimed in unambiguous language by those in authority and put into practice as Indians as individuals were subjected to insult, humiliation and contemptuous treatment." Could you talk about that racism as being "inherent" in imperialism?
ITS WORTH remembering that Nehru was pretty much an Anglophile and, I believe, if I remember, that he was writing that from a British jail during the Second World War. But yes, even for the elitehe was from the elite Indian upper classes and quite British in manner and stylethe humiliation and degradation is one of the hardest things to bear. And its almost invariable. Its hard to think of cases where you dont find it. Hes right, its "inherent" in imperial rule, and I think you can understand the psychology. When youve got your boot on somebodys neck, you cant just say, "Im doing this because Im a brute." You have to say, "Im doing it because they deserve it. Its for their good. Thats why Ive got to do it." Theyre "naughty children," as U.S. leaders described Latin Americans. Theyre "naughty children" who have to be disciplined. Filipinos were described in the same way. Therefore, you dont feel that youre humiliating a child if you dont let it eat poison or something. But thats inherent in the relation of domination, unless you have unusual sensitivity among the ruling powers. You dont have that. Theyre run by people like Donald Rumsfeld, not by people like your friendly aunt. So his comment is quite accurate, and its quite consistent. Its hard to think of an exception to that. Its exactly whats been going on in the Occupied Territories. For years. I mean, one of the worst parts of the Israeli occupation has been the constant humiliation and degradation at every moment. Same in India.
WHAT ABOUT the drive for resources?
THATS VERY consistently a factor in domination. Its not always the only factor. For example, the British desire to control Palestine wasnt because of Palestines resources. It was because of its geostrategic position. So there are lots of factors that enter into seeking domination and control, but resources are very commonly a factor. Take, say, the U.S. takeover of Texas and around half of Mexico about 150 years ago. Thats usually not called a resource war, but if you think about it, it was. Take a look back at the Jacksonian Democrats, Polk and presidents of that time and other people. What they were trying to do was exactly what Saddam Hussein was accused of trying to do in 1990, except they were openly trying to do it. They were trying to get a monopoly over the worlds major resource, which in those days was cotton. Cotton is what fueled the Industrial Revolution just the way oil fuels the contemporary industrial world. And the U.S. had a lot of cotton. One of the goals in taking over particularly Texas, but also the rest, was to ensure that the U.S. could gain a monopoly of cotton and bring the British to their knees, because we would control the resource on which they depended. They were the leading industrial power and the United States was then a minor industrial power. But it had this enormous resource that the British needed, so if we could control it wed bring them to their knees. And remember, Britain was the great enemy at the time. It was the powerful force that was preventing the United States from expanding north to Canada and south to Cuba. So, yes, it was a resource war, in a deep sense, though there were other factors too. And its not unusual to find that. There are other motives, of say, the Israeli takeover of the West Bank. Its partially for the water resources that are needed, but it goes way beyond that.
DEPUTY DEFENSE Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has been described as one of the main architects of the attack on Iraq. He was in Singapore last May and early June. In response to an audience question asking why the United States went after Iraq instead of the truly dangerous North Korea, Wolfowitz said that the most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no "options" in Iraq. "The country floats on a sea of oil."
THATS PART of it. The other part, which he knows very well, is that Iraq was completely defenseless, whereas North Korea had a deterrent. The deterrent is not nuclear weapons. The deterrent is massed artillery at the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, aimed at Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and at maybe tens of thousands of American troops right south of the border. And unless the Pentagon can figure out some way of taking out that artillery with precision-guided weapons or something, North Korea has a deterrent. And Iraq had nothing. They knew perfectly well that Iraq was defenseless. They probably knew where every pocketknife was in every square inch of Iraq by that time. So thats a second factor, but yes, the first factors right. On the other hand, North Korea also has geostrategic significance, which is not unimportant the way the worlds shaping up now. Its not so much North Korea itself as its position within Northeast Asia. The Northeast Asian region is the most dynamic economic region in the world. It includes two major industrial societies, Japan and South Korea, and China is increasingly becoming an industrial society. It has enormous resources. Siberia has all kinds of resources including oil. Northeas Asias got, I think, close to a third of world gross domestic product, way more than the United States. It has half the foreign exchange of the world. It has enormous financial resources. And its growing very fast, much faster than any other region including the United States. Its trade is increasing internally and its connecting to the Southeast Asian countries, sometimes called ASEAN plus three: Southeast Asian countries plus China, Japan and South Korea. And then, with the resource areas of Siberia, well, you know, if you take a look at the geography, pipelines are being built from the resource centers to the industrial centers. Some of them would go, naturally, right to South Korea, but that means right through North Korea. So pipelines through North Korea, if this Trans-Siberian railway is extended, as is surely planned, it would go probably the same route through North Korea to South Korea. So North Korea happens to be in a fairly strategic position with regard to this integrated area.
The U.S. is not particularly happy about Northeast Asian economic integration, just as its always been very ambivalent about Europe. It has always been a concern that Europe might go off on an independent courseit might be what used to be called a "third force." And quite a lot of policy planning, from the Second World War until the present, reflects that concern. Actually, it was expressed, with his usual crudity by Henry Kissinger, very well 30 years ago, in 1973. It was called the "Year of Europe." Europe was finally reconstituting and Kissinger gave an important address that is called the "Year of Europe" address in which the main theme was that European unification was wonderful but that Europe shouldnt get too big for its britches. It should recognize that it has only regional responsibilities within the overall framework of order managed by the United States. And a lot of policy has been designed to prevent Europe from moving off on its own. Thats a lot of the purpose of NATO, in fact. The same issues are arising for Northeast Asia. So the world really has three major economic centers: North America, Northeast Asia and Europe. In one dimension, the military dimension, the United States is in a class by itself, but not in the others.
YOU MENTIONED one national security adviser. Another was Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carters national security adviser, and today a frequent talk show pundit. He contends that the main task facing the managers of American Empire is "to prevent collusion and maintain dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together."
THATS PRETTY frank. Lord Curzon would have been pleased. Thats basically correct. Thats a cruder version of what Kissinger said. I take back my insult. In international relations theory, thats called "realism." You prevent groupings of powers from getting together to oppose hegemonic power. Thats part of the reason why conservative international relations specialists were deeply concerned and highly critical of U.S. policy even during the Clinton years. People like Samuel Huntington, and Robert Jerviswho was then-president of the American Political Science Associationand other well-known realist scholars were warning that U.S. policies are creating a situation in which much of the world would regard the U.S. as what they called a "rogue state" and a threat to their existence and would form coalitions against it. This is in the Clinton years, this is not Bush. Its before the September 2002 Bush administrations National Security Strategy.
JOSEPH SCHUMPETER, who was an Austrian economist, in a 1919 essay called "The Sociology of Imperialisms," wrote: "There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Romes allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interestwhy, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing-space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Romes duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs." So if one were to land like your fictive journalist from Mars and view the United States today, and insert "the U.S." in this Schumpeter essay every time he says "Rome," might you be coming close to some understanding of whats going on?
THATS ONE reason why that quotes been reprintedactually Ive just reprinted it too. Monthly Review used that quote in a fairly recent issue in an editorial referring to Bushs National Security Strategy, precisely because it is so apposite. You just change the words. One of the standard arguments for going to war these days is to maintain credibility. So there are cases where resources arent at stake. Its credibility thats at stake. Take, say, the bombing of Serbia in 1999, this is Clinton again. What was the point of that? The standard line is it was to prevent ethnic cleansing, but to hold that, you just have to invert the chronology. Uncontroversially, the ethnic cleansing followed the bombing and furthermore, it was the anticipated consequence of it. So that cant have been the reason.
What was the reason? If you look carefully, Clinton and Blair said at the time, and its now conceded by many in retrospect, that it was to maintain credibility. To make it clear whos the boss. Serbia was defying the orders of the boss, and you dont do that. And it was, again, defenseless, so you dont lose anything, and you can make up a humanitarian case if you like. You always can. So, thats the reason, to maintain credibility, and there are plenty of other cases like this, in fact, its very common. It should be familiar to anyone who watches television programs about the Mafia. A very large element of the structure of the Mafia is that the Don has to make sure that people understand that hes the boss. You dont cross him. You may send out your goons to beat somebody to a pulp, not because you want his resources but because hes standing up to you. Thats back to Cuba again. It was Castros successful defiance of the United States that made it necessary to carry out terrorist actions aimed at regime change. You dont defy the master, and everyone else has to understand that. If the rumor is spread around that you can get away with defying the master, youre in trouble.
YOU HAVE carefully examined declassified State Department documents over the years, and I was wondering if you could talk about whether you see any persistent themes and patterns. Let me just refer to one that youve cited on a number of occasions, State Department Policy Study 23, issued in 1948, which was apparently written by George Kennan: "The U.S. has about 50 percent of the worlds wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security."
THATS A rather frank statement. Its an interesting document, because that whole document, if you look at it, was from the State Department planning staff, which Kennan headed. And it kind of laid out plans, ideas, about how various parts of the world should fit into this general strategy. This particular comment happened to be specifically about Asia, but its general and its not unlike Schumpeter or British imperialism or anything else. Thats almost, well, to quote Nehru again, its just inherent in domination. Kennan was to be respected for having said it but its too bad that he kept it secret instead of telling people. Remember that he was at the soft humanist end of the planning sector. In fact, he was thrown out a couple of years later because he was considered not harsh enough, and replaced by Paul Nitze, who was much tougher.
A FEW years before Kennans document, the U.S. developed something called the "Grand Area Strategy." What was that about?
THIS IS quite interesting. Theres only one good book about this, by Laurence Shoup and William Minter, called Imperial Brain Trust. Its not an official government policy. These were programs run by the Council on Foreign Relations with the participation of the State Department, from 1939 to 1945, planning the postwar world. It began when the Second World War began and went on. Theyre quite interesting. One reason theyre interesting is because the policies that were actually carried out are very similar to those they discussed. Not surprisingly, it was many of the same people in charge and the same interests represented. Its a book well worth reading. Its been bitterly attacked, naturally, which is a pretty good sign that its worth reading. And no reviews and that sort of thing
its kept secret. Theres very little scholarship on this, but its really important material. Its obvious from just taking a look at who was doing it. It actually reads rather like the National Security Strategy.
In some recent publications Ive compared the statements, and this is kind of Roosevelt-style liberals, remember, at the opposite end of the planning spectrum. It says the United States will have to emerge from the war as the world dominant power, and will have to make sure there is no challenge to its dominance anywhere, ever. And it will have to do this by a program of complete rearmament, which will leave the United States in a position of overwhelming strength in the world. It goes on like that. In the early stages of the war the "Grand Area" was supposed to be the non-German world. They assumed in the early stages that Nazi Germany would partially win the war, at least it would control most of Europe. So there would be a German world, and then the question was, What about the non-German world? And they said: That has to be turned into what they called a "Grand Area" run by the United States. Then they went through a geopolitical and geostrategic analysis of whatever resources wed need, and so on and so forth.
The Grand Area would include, at a minimum, the entire Western Hemisphere, the Far East and the former British Empire. Thats the early stage of the war. As it became clear by 1943 roughly, that Germany was going to be defeated, mainly by the Russians, they began extending the policies beyond, to try to hold on to as much of Eurasia as possible, assuming there wouldnt be a German world. And those policies later extend into the policy planning carried out in the early postwar period, and in many respects right until today. These are pretty natural and sensible plans of analysts who are thinking in terms of world domination for the interests that they represent. Of course, they will say, and probably believe, that theyre just laboring for the benefit of the ordinary person, but the Romans that Schumpeter was talking about would have said the same thing and also believed it.
TALK ABOUT America and how we benefit from empire, if I can use the collective pronoun. William Appleman Williams was an historian who wrote a book called Empire as a Way of Life. In it he writes, "Very simply, Americans of the 20th century liked empire for the very same reasons their ancestors had favored it in the 18th and 19th century. It provided them with renewable opportunities, wealth and other benefits and satisfactions, including a psychological sense of well-being and power." What do you think of Williams analysis?
I THINK hes correct about the United States, but remember that the United States was not a normal empire in the European style, so it wasnt like the British Empire. The English colonists who came to the United States didnt do what they did in India. They didnt create a façade of the native population behind which they would rule. They largely wiped out the native population. Thats rather different. So the indigenous population of whats now the United States was "exterminated," to use the word that the founding fathers used. Not totally, but that was what was considered the right thing to do. They replaced them and it became a kind of settler state, not an imperial state. And the expansion over the national territory was that way all along, including the taking over of large parts of Mexico.
Back in the 1820s, one of the earliest issues in U.S. foreign policy was the desire to take Cuba. It was assumed in the 1820s by Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams and others that Cuba was the next step in expansion. But the British were in the way. The British fleet was much too powerful, and they couldnt take Cuba at the time. John Quincy Adams made a famous statement, he was secretary of state at the time, in which he said: We should back off and Cuba will fall into our hands like a "ripe fruit" by the "laws of political gravitation." Meaning that sooner or later, well become more powerful, the British will become weaker, the deterrent will be gone and well be able to pluck the ripe fruit. Which happened in 1898 under the guise of liberation.
But every expansion up until the Second World War was not establishing traditional colonies. Hawaii was taken over from its own population at the same time, 1898, stolen by force and guile. But then the native population was pretty much replaced, they werent colonized. Again, not totally. Theyre still there, but it became essentially taken over rather than colonized. The Philippines was different. The Philippines was more like a colony. So Williams comments are correct but I think they refer to a different sort of imperial system. If you look at the traditional empires, say, the British Empire, its not so clear that the population of Britain gained from it. Its really a very difficult topic to study, a kind of cost-benefit analysis of empire. But there have been a couple of attempts to study it. And for what theyre worth, the general range of conclusions is that the costs and the benefits probably pretty much balanced out.
Empires are costly. Running Iraq is not cheap. Somebodys paying. Somebodys paying the corporations that destroyed Iraq and the corporations that are rebuilding it. Theyre getting paid by the American taxpayer in both cases. So we pay them to destroy the country, and then we pay them to rebuild it. Those are gifts from U.S. taxpayer to U.S. corporations, indirectly, and happen to affect Iraq.
I DONT understand. How did corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel contribute to the destruction of Iraq?
WHO PAYS Halliburton and Bechtel? The U.S. taxpayer. The military system that bombed Iraq destroyed it. Who paid for that? The same taxpayers. So first you destroy Iraq, then you rebuild it. Its a transfer of wealth from the general population to narrow sectors of the population. Even if you look at the famous Marshall Plan, thats pretty much what it was. Its talked about as an act of "unimaginable benevolence." But whose benevolence? Its the benevolence of the American taxpayer. Of the $13 billion of Marshall Plan aid, about $2 billion went right to the U.S. oil companies. That was part of the effort to shift Europe from a coal-based to an oil-based economy, and parts of it would be more dependent on the United States. It had plenty of coal. It didnt have oil. So theres two billion of the 13.
You look at the rest of it, very little of that money left the United States. It goes from one pocket to another. If you look more closely, the Marshall Plan aid to France just about covered the costs of the French effort to reconquer Indochina. So the U.S. taxpayer wasnt rebuilding France. They were paying the French to buy American weapons to crush the Indochinese. Partially the same was true about the Marshall Plan aid to Holland, in the early stage, and what it was doing in Indonesia. Its a complex flow of aid and benefits.
But, going back to the British Empire, the studies of it have suggested that the costs to the British people may have been about on a par with the benefits that the British people got from it. However, its a transfer internally. To the guys who were running the East India Company: fantastic wealth. To the British troops who were dying out in the wilderness somewhere: a serious cost. So its a part of class war internally. And to a large extent thats the way empires work. A big element of it is internal class war.
IT MAY be somewhat easy to measure the cost in lives, number of soldiers killed, and how much money is spent. How does one measure or even talk about moral degradation?
YOU CANT give measures to that, but its very real and very significant. Thats part of the reason why imperial systems or any system of domination, even a patriarchal family, always has a cover of benevolence. Were back to the racism again. Why do you have to present yourself as somehow doing it for the benefit of the people youre crushing? Well, otherwise you have to face the moral degradation. And one of the ways of covering for it is to say, "Well, Im really an altruist working for the benefit of all." A typical Hollywood joke was about the corporate executive who was laboring day and night for the benefit of the ordinary person. If were honest about it, human relations are often like that. And in imperial systems, almost always.
Its hard to find an imperial system where the intellectual class didnt laud its benevolence. Thats normal. Even the worst monsters. When Hitler was dismembering Czechoslovakia it was done with wonderful rhetoric about bringing peace to the ethnic groups who were in conflict, making sure they could all live happily together under German supervision, which was benign. You really have to labor to find an exception to that. And of course its true in the United States.
MARK TWAIN is known for writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he was a staunch opponent of U.S. wars of aggression. A century ago, he was involved in something called the Anti-Imperialist League. He wrote in The Mysterious Stranger: "Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception." Why is that aspect of Mark Twain almost totally occluded?
THATS AN interesting story. For the last years of his life, one of his main activities was vigorous involvement in opposition to the Philippine War. Twain has wonderful anti-imperialist essays. But you dont find reference to them. I think the first general publication of them was in a book, Mark Twains Weapons of Satire, edited by Jim Zwick about 10 years ago. Syracuse University Press published a collection of his anti-imperialist essays. If my memory is correct, the introduction by Zwick says that the standard biographies dont include this material, although it wasnt secret. Why? The question answers itself. You dont want people to explode the aura of benevolence in which we clothe ourselves.
YOU MENTIONED the Mafia Don earlier. Major General Smedley Butler of the U.S. Marine Corps was a highly-decorated officer, he won the Congressional Medal of Honor not once but twice. He said, "Ive spent 33 years
being a high class muscleman for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism
. I helped purify Nicaragua, I helped make Mexico
safe for American oil interests, I helped in the rape of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street
. I was rewarded with honors, medals, promotions
I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was operate a racket in three city districts. The Marines operated on three continents."
SMEDLEY BUTLER in his later years came out with some very honest and cutting comments. The honors stopped. He was also either threatened with being kicked out of the Marine Corps, or may have actually been expelled, for opposing U.S. support for Mussolini. I think Henry Stimson may have been responsible for that, because at the time, the U.S. loved Mussolini, thought he was great, but apparently Butler was opposed.
TRADITIONALLY IF you used the word "imperialism" and attached the word "American" in front of it, you were immediately dismissed as a member of some far left fringe. That has undergone a bit of a transformation in the last few years. Lets just take Michael Ignatieff, for one. Son of a Canadian diplomat, hes at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where he is Carr Professor of Human Rights Policy. He writes in a New York Times Magazine cover story on July 28, 2002, "Americas entire war on terrorism is an exercise in imperialism." Then he adds, "Imperialism used to be the white mans burden," echoing Kipling. "This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesnt stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect." On January 5, 2003, in yet another cover story in the New York Times Magazine, he writes, "Americas empire is not like the empires of times past, built on colonies, conquests and the white mans burden.... The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights, and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known." And he has a new book out, called Empire Lite.
OF COURSE, the apologists for every other imperial power have said the same thing. So you can go back to John Stuart Mill, one of the most outstanding Western intellectuals, now were talking about the real peak of moral integrity and intelligence. He defended the British Empire in very much those words. John Stuart Mill wrote the classic essay on humanitarian intervention. Everyone studies it in law schools. What he says is, Britain is unique in the world. Its unlike any country before it. Other countries have crass motives and seek gain and so on, but the British act only for the benefit of others. In fact, he said, Our motives are so pure that Europeans cant understand us. They heap "obloquy" upon us and they seek to discover crass motives behind our benevolent actions. But everything we do is for the benefit of the natives, the barbarians. We want to bring them free markets and honest rule and freedom and all kinds of wonderful things. Todays version is just illustrating Marxs comment about tragedy being repeated as farce.
The timing of Mills comments is interesting. This was around 1859, and it was right after an event that in British terminology is called the "Indian Mutiny," meaning those barbarians raised their heads. It was a rebellion against British rule, and the British put it down with extreme violence and brutality. Mill certainly knew about this. It was all over England, it was all over the press. The old-fashioned conservatives like Richard Cobden condemned it harshly, just like Senator Robert Byrd condemns whats going on today. The real conservatives are different from the ones that call themselves that. But Mill, right in the midst of that, wrote about this picture of Britain as an angelic power, and I think youd find it hard to find an exception to that.
Im surprised that Ignatieff is not aware that hes just repeating a very familiar rhetoric. And its true, even in internal records, when people are talking to themselves. A lot of Soviet archives are coming out, basically being sold to the highest bidder like everything else in Russia. Its kind of interesting to see that they talk to each other the same way they talk in public. So, for example, you go back to 1947 or so, and Gromyko and those guys are talking to each other and saying things like, We have to protect democracy. We have to intervene to protect democracy from the forces of fascism, which are everywhere, and democracy is surely the highest value, so weve got to intervene to protect it. And hes talking about the "peoples democracies." Well, he believed it probably as much as Ignatieff believes what he is saying.
IGNATIEFF SEEMS to be a particular favorite of the New York Times. In the New York Times Magazine of September 7, 2003, "Why Are We In Iraq?" is the title of his article. He writes, "New rules of intervention, proposed by the U.S. and abided by it, would end the canard that the U.S., not its enemy, is the rogue state." You have a book called Rogue States. What is Ignatieff getting at here, that this is a canard that the U.S. is a rogue state?
ACTUALLY, I borrowed the phrase from Samuel Huntington. In Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal, he described how, in the eyes of much of the world, the United States is regarded as "the rogue superpower" and the "greatest external threat" to their existence. Thats in the context of criticizing Clintons policies leading to the building up of coalitions against the U.S.
If we define "rogue state" in terms of any kind of principles, like violation of international law, or aggression, or atrocities, or human rights violations, and so on, the U.S. qualifies rather well, as you would expect of the most powerful state in the world. Just as Britain did. Just as France did. And every one of them wrote the same kind of garbage that youre quoting from Ignatieff. So, France was carrying out a "civilizing mission" when the minister of war was saying they were going to have to exterminate the natives in Algeria, which they proceeded to try to do. Even the Nazis. You go to the absolute depths and youll find the same sentiments expressed.
When the Japanese fascists were conquering China and carrying out huge atrocities like the Nanking Massacre, the rhetoric behind it brings tears to your eyes. They were creating an "earthly paradise" in which the peoples of Asia would work together, and Japan would sacrifice itself for their benefit so they would all have peace and prosperity, and Japan would protect them from the Communist bandits while they move on to the earthly paradise, and so on. Again, Im a little surprised that some editor at the New York Times, or a dean at Harvard doesnt see that it is just a little odd to be repeating whats been said over and over again by the worst monsters. Why is it different now?
Notice, by the way, that one of the great benefits of being a respectable intellectual, is you never need any evidence for anything you say. So you go through those articles and try to find some evidence to support the conclusions. Its not that its not there, its just that it would be ridiculous to put it in. Its as if you wrote that two and two is four, and then somebody said, "Wheres your evidence?" In order to make it to the peak of respectability, you have to understand that its faintly absurd even to ask for evidence for the praise of those with power. Its just automatic. Of course theyre magnificent. Maybe they made some mistakes in the past, but now theyre magnificent. And to look for evidence of that is like looking for evidence for the truths of arithmetic. So there never is any.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN, in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree writes: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonalds cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglass.... And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valleys technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps." Now thats a pretty candid statement from the three-time Pulitzer Prizewinning New York Times columnist.
THOUGH I suspect if you quizzed him on it, tried to get him on your program, he would say, "Well, but thats for the good." Because Silicon Valley and the trade, its just helping people, and unfortunately youve got to keep the barbarians under control, were back to the Brzezinski quote you mentioned before. In fact, Mill and everyone else says the same thing. Weve got to keep the barbarians away so everybody can benefit from these wonders that were bringing to them, like Silicon Valley, which of course, were developing for their benefit, or maybe by some invisible hand or something like that. So therefore its all, again, just pure benevolence.
DO YOU see some echoes of the 1960s and the so-called discussions and debate about U.S. intervention in Indochina and whats going on today? Senator Joseph Biden and other Democrats, as well as articles in Foreign Affairs, which is published by the Council on Foreign Relations, the New Yorkbased establishment think tank, are now talking about how they botched it. There was poor planning. They should have seen what would be needed, and they didnt have enough translators in place.
ITS, AS you say, in part a replica of the 1960s. Its worth remembering that among educated elites, among intellectuals and planners, there was almost never any criticism of the Vietnam War. Even at the peak of popular protest, 1969, maybe 70 percent of the population described the war as fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake. But among educated sectors you almost never heard that. The most that could be said is "its a mistake, bad planning, should have had more translators, we didnt understand anything about the Vietnamese, hubris and so on and so forth." And so, "Do it right next time," in other words, but not that there was anything wrong with doing it. Which is why, as the Vietnam War has been reconstructed, in American intellectual culture, the U.S. turns out to be the victim. The U.S. is the victim of the Vietnamese. Literally.
THE VIETNAMESE Air Force carpet bombed the United States.
JIMMY CARTER, for whom the "soul of our foreign policy" was human rights, piety and so on, was asked in a news conference whether the U.S. owes anything to Vietnam after what happened, and he said that we owe them no debt because "the destruction was mutual." Do a database search and see if anybody commented on that.
When George Bush Number Onewho was kind of an old-fashioned conservative, not a hawk and not a dove, just kind of a mainstream moderatewas in office, he told the Vietnamese, Of course we can never forget what you did to us, but were willing to let bygones be bygones. We dont insist on retribution, if you will pay proper attention to the only moral issue thats left after the war, namely the remains of Americans missing in action. That was a particularly interesting comment because of its placement. It happened to appear on the front page of the New York Times just next to another column that was on Japans strange unwillingness to face up to what it had done in Asia. The article offered an elaborate etymological study of some of the words that the Japanese use when they refer to their crimes in Asia, and how they dont have quite the right connotations, and so on and so forth. Right next to it is George Bush saying, The only moral issue after the war in which a couple of million of people were killed and the country was devastated and theyre still dying from chemical warfare, is: What about the bones of our pilots?
GEORGE BUSH the First, when he was running for president in 1988, was asked to comment on the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner over international airspace killing all 290 passengers. He said, "I will never apologize for the United States, I dont care what the facts are."
THAT WAS just franker than others. Ignatieff says we dont make mistakes, or if we made mistakes they were in the past.
BUT THE intentions are always noble.
THE INTENTIONS are noble. In fact, what happened after the shooting down of the airliner? The captain of the ship got an award, some high medal, the ship when it came back, the USS Vincennes, was greeted in the port with great applause and so on. Actually, the U.S. Naval Institute Journal published an interesting article by another commander, David Carlson, who was commander of a nearby vessel, and he said he couldnt understand it. He said that they saw this Iranian commercial airliner coming up right in international airspace, and the USS Vincennes focused its high tech radar system on it and was moving forward to shoot it down, and they couldnt understand what these guys were doing. He said they called the Vincennes the "Robo Cruiser," or some such term. Thats in the U.S. Naval Institute proceedings.
IN THE discussions about the attack of Iraq and the occupation, it seems that if these weapons of mass destruction are ever found, then that would eliminate all the criticism. Theres no principled dissent in terms of international law, the Nuremberg Tribunal principles or the UN Charter. Are you surprised that none of the allegations that were made, from drones of death to mobile chemical labs have been verified?
VERY SURPRISED. I have a feeling if you looked at Boulder High School, if somebody started digging out in the back fields, youd probably find stuff from some chemistry or biology lab that could in theory be used to make chemical and biological weapons. The fact that they havent found anything is mind-boggling. I took for granted they must have the facilities. But there are plenty of things that arent discussed, like for example, why didnt the Iraqis overthrow Saddam Hussein? Well, if you destroy a society and you force the population to become dependent on a tyrant, they dont have any basis for overthrowing him.
If you look at other cases, theres very good reason to agree with the Westerners who know Iraq best, and are cut out of the American press for that reason: Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, the two UN administrators. They had hundreds of people going around Iraq, they were getting information from all over the place. They are very knowledgeable. I think they probably know Iraq better than any Westerners. They both resigned in protest over the sanctions, which Halliday called "genocidal." Theyre very respected European UN diplomats with lots of experience. They said the sanctions are destroying the society. Theyre strengthening the tyrant. Theyre compelling people to rely on him. He was a brutal tyrant, but he ran a very efficient food distribution system and people just relied on him for survival. So you didnt get what you got in other places.
Actually, if you look at the record of the guys who are in Washington right now, at least some people know that they supported Saddam Hussein through his worst atrocities. But he wasnt the only one. Theres quite a rogues gallery that they supported. Like take Ceausescu in Romania, he was comparable to Saddam Hussein. He was a monstrous tyrant. The Reagan and Bush I administrations supported him to the last minute, when he was overthrown from within by Romanians. Now they take credit for having overthrown him. Mobutu was another. Mobutu, another killer, was the first person invited to the Bush I White House. They supported Suharto, Marcos and Duvalier to the very end. All these guys were overthrown from within, despite enormous U.S. support. Theres no reason to think that that might not have happened with Saddam Hussein.
So thats a question thats overlooked. Why were we supporting Saddam Hussein right up until the invasion of Kuwait? Why wouldnt we let the Iraqis overthrow him? Theres another simple question, too. You dont know, when you invade a country, whats going to happen. There could have been a humanitarian catastrophe. The fact that youre willing to invade a country and risk that puts you on the same level as say, Khrushchev, when he put nuclear missiles in Cuba. Its criminal lunacy. The fact that the worst didnt happen doesnt make it less criminal lunacy. Its still a criminal lunacy. It holds in this case, too.
RAHUL MAHAJAN, in his new book Full Spectrum Dominance poses the question: If Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and he faced annihilation, and he didnt use these weapons that he was alleged to have, then under what circumstances would he use them?
U.S. ANALYSIS, including the CIA and intelligence agencies, who all assumed that he must have some weapons of mass destruction capacity, as I did and everyone did, they all predicted that hes not going to use them, but if hes driven to desperation, then he will use them. Thats another risk that Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld and the rest were willing to take. They were willing to drive Saddam Hussein to the point where he might use weapons of mass destruction. Just as they were willing to take the risk that there could be a huge humanitarian catastrophe. All of these are criminal lunacy.
YOUR NEW book is titled Hegemony or Survival. Do you understand hegemony in the same way as imperialism, as a system of domination?
IMPERIALISM is one specific form of domination. There are plenty of other forms. These terms dont have precise meanings. But hegemony is much more general.
ANTONIO GRAMSCI, who helped popularize the term "hegemony," wrote in 1925, "A main obstacle to change is the reproduction by the dominating forces of elements of the hegemonic ideology. Its an important and urgent task to develop alternative interpretations of reality." How does someone develop "alternative interpretations of reality," as Gramsci suggests?
I RESPECT Gramsci a lot, but I think its possible to paraphrase that comment, namely, just tell the truth. Instead of repeating ideological fanaticism, dismantle it, try to find out the truth, and tell the truth. Does that say anything different? Its something any one of us can do. Remember, intellectuals internalize the conception that they have to make things look complicated, otherwise what are they around for? But its worth asking yourself how much of it really is complicated. Gramsci is a very admirable person, but take that statement and try to translate it into simple English. Is it complicated to understand, or to know how to act?
A CERTAIN MIT professor is celebrating his 75th birthday on December 7. Do you have any information on that that you could possibly share?
IN DONT think there is such a person.
THERES NO one on the faculty here?
THERE MAY be somebody whos having a 75th birthday, but hes not celebrating it. Youve got to be careful with this language. Just because youre an intellectual doesnt mean you can use big words.