Noam Chomsky

The nation's most implacable critic of U.S. foreign policy argues that the war is unjust, America is the biggest terrorist state and intellectuals always support official violence.

Published January 16, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag will always be remembered as the two leading American intellectuals who said the wrong thing after Sept. 11.

For Sontag, it was her now infamous New Yorker magazine slap at the idea that the terrorists were cowards. For Chomsky, it was statements like this one: "The terrorist attacks were major atrocities. In scale they may not reach the level of many others, for example, the bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people (no one knows, because the U.S. blocked an inquiry at the U.N. and no one cares to pursue it)." To many, it seemed Chomsky was shrugging off the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States because our country commits atrocities just as terrible and often worse.

To those abroad who consider American power grossly abusive, Chomsky is a voice of reason -- an American activist who reads their newspapers, keeps track of their suffering and never lets his countrymen forget about it. In his 2000 book, "A New Generation Draws the Line," he railed against our policies in East Timor and Israel, and most importantly, our intervention in Kosovo. What brought the U.S. to the battered region of Yugoslavia, Chomsky wrote, was not a humanitarian drive to stop Slobodan Milosevic from ethnically cleansing yet another Muslim population, but in fact the interests of our foreign policy elite. His critics argue that this is typical; the Chomsky position reflexively brands American foreign intervention as self-interested or imperialistic, regardless of what else might be at stake. But Chomsky's remarks after Sept. 11 struck many as beyond the pale, even those accustomed to his relentless style of dissent.

Chomsky's latest book, "9-11," is a collection of interviews about the "war on terrorism" -- a characterization of the current conflict he rejects. The legendary 73-year-old linguist and political essayist spoke to Salon last week from his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught since 1955.

In your public comments after Sept. 11, you drew comparisons to our bombing of the Sudan following bin Laden's attacks on overseas American targets. Were you implying that we brought this on ourselves?

Of course not. That's idiotic.

That wasn't your intention?

Nobody could possibly interpret it that way. [I said] look, this is a horrendous atrocity but unfortunately the toll is not unusual. And that's just a plain fact. I mentioned the toll from one bombing, a minor footnote to U.S. actions -- what was known to be a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, providing half the supplies of the country. That one bombing, according to the estimates made by the German Embassy in Sudan and Human Rights Watch, probably led to tens of thousands of deaths.

I said, look, this is a horrible atrocity but outside of Europe and North America, people understand very well that it's just like a lot of history.

I'm kind of simple-minded. I believe in elementary moral truisms -- namely, if something is a crime when it's committed against us, it's a crime when we commit it against others. If there is a simpler moral truism than that, I'd like to hear it. I think it makes sense to remind people of it.

Were you surprised by how people commonly interpreted your statement?

No, not at all. I expect the intellectual classes to behave exactly like that. That's their historical role -- to support state violence and defame people who try to bring up moral truisms.

You don't think that your statements downplayed what happened on Sept. 11?

By saying that this was a horrendous atrocity committed with wickedness and awesome cruelty, but we should understand that the toll is regrettably not unusual? What's unusual is the direction in which the guns were pointing. I think we should be honest enough to understand that.

You've said repeatedly that the United States is a leading terrorist state. What is your definition of terrorism?

My definition of terrorism is taken from the U.S. Code, which seems to me quite adequate. It comes down to the statement that terrorism is the calculated threat or use of violence with the aim of intimidating and provoking fear and damage in order to achieve political, religious, ideological and other goals, typically directed against civilian populations.

Do you distinguish between different kinds of terrorism, and if so, how?

There are different kinds. The U.S., of course, did declare a war on terrorism 20 years ago. The Reagan administration came into office announcing that the war on terrorism would be the core of U.S. foreign policy. To quote Reagan and George Schultz, terrorism was condemned as a war carried out by depraved opponents of civilization itself, a return to barbarism in our time, an evil scourge. They were concerned primarily with what they called state-sponsored international terrorism. So the Oklahoma City bombing was terrorism but not state-supported international terrorism.

I take terrorism to be just how they define it. By that standard, it's uncontroversial that the United States is a leading terrorist state. In fact, it's the only state that was condemned for international terrorism by the highest bodies: the International Court of Justice in 1986 [for backing Contra forces against Nicaragua] and the supporting resolution of the Security Council which followed shortly after that. The United States vetoed it.

How do you distinguish between what you consider U.S. terrorism and al-Qaida's terrorism on Sept. 11?

One is state terrorism and the other is private terrorism.

How do you think both cases should be addressed?

Nicaragua dealt with the problem of terrorism in exactly the right way. It followed international law and treaty obligations. It collected evidence, brought the evidence to the highest existing tribunal, the International Court of Justice, and received a verdict -- which of course the U.S. dismissed with contempt. The court called upon the United States to terminate the crime and pay substantial reparations. The U.S. responded by immediately escalating the war; new funding was provided. In fact, the U.S. official orders shifted to more extreme terrorism. The Contra forces were encouraged to attack "soft targets," as they were called, or undefended civilian targets, and avoid combat with the Nicaraguan army.

It continued until 1990. Nicaragua followed all the right procedures, but of course, couldn't get anywhere because the U.S. simply did not adhere to it. In that case, there was no need to carry out a police investigation. The facts were clear.

And al-Qaida?

In the case of something like al-Qaida terrorism -- I presume like everyone else that al-Qaida was responsible for Sept. 11, or some network very much like it -- the right approach has been laid out by others. For example, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, there's an article by the preeminent Anglo-American military historian, Michael Howard, a very conservative figure, who's very supportive of U.S. policy and British policy.

I don't agree with a lot of what Howard says about history, but his recommendation seems to make sense. He says that the right way to deal with criminal atrocities like the al-Qaida bombings is careful police work; a criminal investigation carried out by international authorities; the use of internationally sanctioned means, which could include force, to apprehend the criminals; bring the criminals to justice; ensure that they have fair trials and international tribunals. That sounds to me like sound judgement. It's also been proposed by the Vatican and innumerable others. So it's not only my opinion.

Do you think that American force is justified in the case of self-defense?

Sure, anybody is entitled to self-defense. That's Article 51 of the U.N. charter. However, it's very hard to find such cases. Nicaragua, for example, was entitled to the use of violence in self-defense. They didn't follow that but they would have been entitled to because they were certainly under attack.

Nicaragua's not the only case. All through Latin America, there's sharp condemnation of the criminal atrocities of Sept. 11. But it's qualified by the observation that although these are horrible atrocities, they are not unfamiliar. The Jesuit University in Managua's research journal, Envio, says that yes, [Sept. 11] could be called Armageddon but we're familiar with our own Armageddon. They describe the assault on Nicaragua, which was no small thing. Tens of thousands of people were killed and the country was practically destroyed during the Contra war.

So you don't think our war in Afghanistan is an example of self-defense?

Is the United States under an armed attack?

I would think so.

Article 51 [of the U.N. charter] is very explicit and I believe it's correct. It says force can be used in self-defense against armed attack. Armed attack has a definition in international law. It means sudden, overwhelming, instantaneous ongoing attack. Nobody believes the U.S. is under armed attack.

[Note: After the attacks, NATO allies invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty which states, "An armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all."]

If the United States wanted to appeal to Article 51, it could. The United States could easily have obtained Security Council authorization for its use of force in Afghanistan but purposely chose not to. It would have gained authorization [and] Britain would go along reflexively, France would raise no objections, Russia would be enthusiastically in favor of it because Russia is eager to gain U.S. support for its own massive atrocities in Chechnya. China would have gone along for similar reasons -- support for its own atrocities in Western China. So there would have been no veto. But the U.S. preferred not to have authorization, just as the U.S. preferred not to ask for extradition.

What would motivate the U.S. to do this?

My speculation is that the U.S. does not want to establish the principle that it has to defer to some higher authority before carrying out the use of violence.

It's a very natural position on the part of a powerful state; in fact, I think it's probably close to universal. If a state is powerful enough, it wants to establish the principle that it can act without authorization. In fact, that's official U.S. policy, announced very clearly by Clinton and Madeleine Albright: The U.S. will act multilaterally when possible, unilaterally when deemed necessary.

I don't suggest that the United States is different from any other country in this respect. Andorra would do it too, if they could get away with it. But unless you're a powerful state, you can't get away with it.

Why do you think that the attack on Sept. 11 was not an armed attack on our country?

First of all, the United States itself does not claim it was an armed attack. It claims it was an act of terrorism, which is not an armed attack. An armed attack is an act of war. So nobody claims that it was an armed attack. But post-Sept. 11 there is no armed attack. The only thing coming close was the anthrax scare but that's apparently domestic.

You have to currently be under attack and you don't think we are?

Yes, armed attack is ongoing, overwhelming attack. But my opinion doesn't really matter. If the U.S. believed it was under armed attack, it could go to the Security Council under that principle. The U.S. doesn't want to. The fact of the matter is it's not under armed attack and nobody claims it is.

Is there anything about the Islamic threat -- we've heard so much about their hatred of the West -- that requires our intervention and use of force?

I tend to agree with radical rags like the Wall Street Journal on this. Right after the Sept. 11 bombing, to its credit, the Journal was the first and almost the only newspaper -- the Christian Science Monitor did it too -- to have a look at what opinion was really like in the Islamic world. The Journal turned to the people it's concerned with: wealthy Muslims. They had an article -- I think it was called "Moneyed Muslims" -- that evaluated the attitudes of very pro-Western, pro-American elements in the Islamic world: bankers, international lawyers, people who worked for multinational corporations. [The article] asked them what they thought of the United States.

They expressed their attitude ... they're very strongly in favor of major U.S. policies -- in fact they're part of them. But they were opposed to the United States because of its systematic opposition to democracy in the Islamic world, its undermining of democratic elements, its support for oppressive, corrupt and brutal regimes. They're strongly opposed to its policy of severely harming the civilian population of Iraq while strengthening Saddam Hussein. And they remember, even if we choose not to, that the United States supported him through the worst atrocities. Of course, they oppose the decisive U.S. support for what has been a harsh and brutal military occupation for 35 years in the Palestinian territories. They oppose all those policies and that's very widespread, not only in the Islamic world but in much of the Third World.

Take Latin America. There were international Gallup polls taken after Sept. 11. The question was: Should military force be used when everyone understands that that military force is going to severely harm civilians? Support was not very high, even in Europe. But in Latin America it was particularly low. The latest figures I've seen come from Envio, the research journal of the Jesuit University in Managua. According to them, figures ranged from a high of 11 percent in Venezuela and Colombia to a low of 2 percent in Mexico. Well, Latin America has experience with U.S. power.

But you don't think that the threat from the extremists in the Islamic world justifies our use of force?

The threat is terrible. In fact, the people who the Wall Street Journal was interviewing hate these guys. They're their main enemies. People like Osama bin Laden are aiming at them.

I want to be clear: Are you saying that because we're guilty of abuses against the Islamic world and elsewhere, the use of U.S. force to disable these violent extremists is not justified?

I thought Michael Howard's proposal was quite reasonable and that could very well have involved the use of force. If you have criminal atrocities, it is legitimate to use force to apprehend those who are guilty and give them a fair trial. Incidentally, notice that nobody, including you and me, believes that that principle should apply to us. So we're all hopelessly immoral, including me. None of us believes that that principle should have been applied to the people who were condemned by the world court.

You endorse a criminal pursuit of bin Laden and his cohorts -- but why don't you don't believe that the war in Afghanistan is justified in the wake of Sept. 11?

The war in Afghanistan targets Afghan civilians, and openly. The British defense minister put it very clearly in a front-page article in the New York Times. He said we are going to attack the Afghans until they finally realize that they better overthrow their government. That's a virtual definition of international terrorism.

Can you give an example of a situation where military force is justified?

Force was justified when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war against us. If you try to think of the last 50 years, have there been military interventions which really did bring massive atrocities to an end? There are actually two cases, both in the 1970s. In 1971, India invaded what was then East Pakistan and put an end to horrendous atrocities. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in self-defense and drove out the Khmer Rouge and terminated their atrocities. Why aren't those called humanitarian interventions? Why isn't the 1970s called the decade of humanitarian intervention when there really were two cases that ended massive atrocities?

There's a simple reason for that: The interventions were carried out by the wrong parties -- not the United States. And secondly, the U.S. strenuously opposed both of the interventions and punished those who carried them out. If we're honest, we would say yes, there were two humanitarian interventions in the last 50 years.

So you do think that violence can bring peace?

Yes, the Second World War brought peace. I was a child, but I did support the war at the time, and in retrospect, still do.

Do you not think that we're under the same sort of threat now?

We, under a threat? No, nothing remotely like it. We're under the threat of a criminal conspiracy which ought to be dealt with like a criminal conspiracy, pretty much the way Michael Howard said. We're probably under a bio-terror threat. Whatever the anthrax story was, I don't take it lightly and I think that's a serious threat.

What can or should be done about someone like Saddam Hussein, someone who has access to weapons of mass destruction?

Not only weapons of mass destruction but here it's exactly the way Clinton, Bush, Blair and everyone else says. He not only is a monster but his is the only existing country that used weapons of mass destruction, namely chemical warfare, against its own population. All that's missing in that description is three words: with our support.

Does that mean we should not go after him now?

Wait a minute. That's not a small point. He carried out a huge a massacre of his own population with our support. The U.S. continued, as did Britain, to support him right through the worst atrocities, turning against him when he disobeyed orders. That doesn't make him less of a monster. But we should tell the truth. We should not conceal those three words which everyone else in the world knows.

What should we say?

We should say, "Yeah, we supported him in his worst atrocities; now we don't like him anymore and what should we do about him?" And, yeah, that's a problem.

My own feeling, to tell you the truth, is that there was a great opportunity to get rid of Saddam Hussein in March 1991. There was a massive Shiite uprising in the south led by rebelling Iraqi generals. The U.S. had total command of the region at the time. [The Iraqi generals] didn't ask for U.S. support but they asked for access to captured Iraqi equipment and they asked the United States to prevent Saddam from using his air force to attack the rebels. The U.S. refused. It allowed Saddam Hussein to use military helicopters and other forces to crush the rebellion.

You can read it in the New York Times. It was more important to maintain stability -- that was the word that was used -- or as the diplomatic correspondent of the New York Times put it, the best of all worlds for the United States would have been for an iron-fisted military junta to seize power and rule in Iraq the way Saddam Hussein did. But since we couldn't get that, we'd have to accept him. That was the main opportunity of getting rid of him. Since then it hasn't been so simple. The forces of resistance were crushed with our help, after the war.

Since then, there's a question of whether the Iraqi Democratic opposition forces could mount some means of overthrowing this monster. That's a tricky business. The worst way of doing it is to undermine opposition to him. That's exactly what the sanctions do. Everyone who observed the sanctions has concluded -- including the humanitarian administrators, Dennis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, who know more about it than anyone else -- that the sanctions have severely harmed the civilian population and strengthened Saddam Hussein. People under severe sanctions and trying to survive are not going to carry out any action against an armed military force.

So how would you feel about it if we were to continue the war on terrorism there?

There's no war on terrorism. That's a term of propaganda. There cannot be a war on terrorism led by the one state in the world that has been condemned for international terrorism and supported by major terrorist states like Russia and China. We can call it something but we can't call it a war on terrorism.

But do you think that we should move against Iraq now?

No, I agree with virtually the whole world, including our closest allies, that a military attack on Iraq would be a terrible mistake.


Same reason that everyone in the world, including England, is telling the U.S. government not to do it. They apparently have no evidence whatsoever that would tie Iraq to these atrocities, so an attack on Iraq would be for some other reason that existed before. If those reasons were there before, why didn't the U.S. do it then? For one thing, they're not going to do it because they don't want to get rid of Saddam Hussein; given the likely alternatives, they don't want to break the country up.

What real difference do you think it would make if we were more honest about some of the things that we've done? It seems like one of your main complaints is against American rhetoric and propaganda.

If we were honest, then we could at least evaluate what we do sanely. If we're dishonest, we know that whatever we do, only by the merest accident will it be justified. The first elementary step is honesty. After that you can go on and consider complicated issues on their merits.

Do you think that U.S. foreign policy always narrowly serves our national self-interest?

No, I don't think it's national self-interest. That's a term of propaganda. It implies that it's in the interest of the nation. No state acts in the interest of the nation. They usually act in the interest of powerful internal groups that dominate policy. Again, that's a historical truism. I don't think Nazi Germany was acting in the interest of the German people. In the case of the United States, we know who the planners are and where they come from, and yes, I think they usually act in their own interest. It's not very surprising.

Do you think foreign interventions might ever be driven by a mixed bag of motivations?

Sure, every atrocity in history, including Hitler's invasions and the Japanese conquests, was a mixed bag. Take Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, look at the rhetoric. They were going to Christianize and uplift the natives and end slavery and bring liberty and freedom to the benighted Africans. Certainly the U.S. State Department believed it; they approved of it. It's always a mixed bag.

Is it your position that we're driven by imperial designs?

No more than any other country. It happens that the U.S. is overwhelmingly the most powerful country in the world and has been for 50 years, so of course its reach is far greater. Luxembourg might be driven by the same goals but can't do much about it.

What would our imperial interest have been in Kosovo, then?

I take the official reasons very seriously. I tend to be rather literal; I assume people are telling the truth. The official reasons were three that were repeated over and over again by Defense Secretary [William] Cohen in his congressional testimony a year after the war. The first was to prevent ethnic cleansing. The second was to ensure the stability of the region. And the third was to establish credibility. The first we can dismiss because it's agreed on all sides that ethnic cleansing took place after the bombing began.

But Milosevic had already carried out ethnic cleansing in other regions of Yugoslavia before Kosovo and he was pressuring the Albanian population in Kosovo, so the threat -- and intention -- was clearly there.

Well, yes, but there's a very detailed record of this. The State Department has presented extensive documentation, as has NATO, the Kosovo observers and so on. There were plenty of atrocities going on. In fact, the British government, which was the most hawkish element of the coalition as late as January 1999, attributed most of the atrocities to the Kosovo Liberation Army. Look, it was a very ugly place -- there may have been 2,000 people killed on all sides in the preceding years and a lot of people displaced. But that was not the ethnic cleansing anyone's talking about. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had no registered refugees at the time the bombing was started.

The massive ethnic cleansing and atrocities began a little bit after the withdrawal of the monitors on March 22. But it really began after the bombing on March 24. That's just not contested. We can contest whether it was a consequence of the bombing. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the commander, announced that a predictable consequence of the bombing would be ethnic cleansing. Maybe he's right, maybe he's not. So we know that the bombing was not undertaken to prevent the ethnic cleansing that followed it. Clark himself, three weeks after the war, was asked over British television whether the reason for the bombing was ethnic cleansing. He said of course not. Ethnic cleansing was never a factor.

So we're left with the next two reasons: ensuring stability and maintaining credibility. I think those are probably the reasons. Maintaining stability has a very special meaning. It doesn't mean that the area is quiet. Stability means under Western control. What does maintaining credibility mean? It means making sure that people are afraid of you and what you're going to do.

What would the alternative have been? If the West had not intervened, Milosevic could have carried on with his atrocities unmolested.

In Kosovo, right before the bombing, there were two positions on the table. One was the NATO position, the other was the Serbian government position. They both called for an international presence in Kosovo but they differed on what that should be. The NATO position was that it had to be a NATO-led international presence with a free run of all of Serbia. The Serbian position was vague. If you take a look at the peace treaty, it's a compromise between the two positions. Suppose they had pursued the possibility of the compromised solution which, in fact, was reached on paper at least. Could that have worked? Well, we don't know because it was refused.

I'm not a pacifist. I think use of force is sometimes legitimate. However, if someone is calling for the use of force, they have a heavy burden of proof to meet. The burden of proof is always on those who call for the use of violence, in particular extreme violence. That's a moral truism. The question is, was that burden met? Try to find some argument which meets that burden of proof. Don't take my word for it, check the facts. You'll find that the literature on this almost entirely overlooks the crucial evidence which is the extensive, detailed evidence from Western sources on what was happening up to the bombing. The only book I know that covers this is my own.

Second, take a look at the arguments that are given to justify the bombing. Either they claim that ethnic cleansing and atrocities were going on before the bombing -- which we know is false -- or they claim the bombing was carried out because ethnic cleansing was going to take place. Well, by that argument you could justify anything.

Couldn't NATO have been basing its actions on what we'd all seen Milosevic was capable of in Bosnia and Croatia?

They could have. But by that argument, if you really believe that, then they should have been bombing Jakarta, Washington and London. Which of course nobody believes.

At that very same time, Indonesia was carrying out much worse atrocities in East Timor. Furthermore, the Indonesian generals were announcing very loudly and clearly that unless the planned referendum went their way, they would just wipe the place out. Britain and the United States were still supporting the Indonesians, who had wiped out a third of the population. So according to the argument you're proposing, you're saying that the United States should have bombed themselves and Indonesia. We don't believe that.

Let me repeat a moral truism. If there is a principle that we apply to others, we must insist that the principle apply to us. If there is a principle that justified the bombing in Serbia, formulate the principle and ask -- does it apply to us?

But as the world's largest superpower, we are called on, sometimes by countries that have criticized us, to intervene in conflicts. What role is the world's superpower supposed to play?

The first, simplest role it should play is to stop participating in atrocities. In 1999, for example, one role the U.S. could have played is to stop participating in the atrocities in East Timor. Britain could have played the same role. That would have made a big difference. In fact, when the U.S. finally did inform Indonesia that the game was over on Sept. 11, after the worst had happened, they instantly withdrew. The power was always there.

Take another case. There was much talk about how NATO couldn't tolerate atrocities like those in Kosovo right near its borders. A small fact was overlooked: NATO was not only tolerating but in fact supporting much worse atrocities right within its borders -- namely, Turkish atrocities against the Kurds inside Turkey. Eighty percent of the arms were coming from the United States. They peaked in the late 1990s and led to tens of thousands of people killed and 3,500 towns and villages destroyed. There were 2 to 3 million refugees. One way the greatest superpower could act is by terminating its massive and critical support for these atrocities.

Some of your positions, on Kosovo for example, have led people even on the left to suggest that you think no matter what the U.S. does it's unacceptable simply because the U.S. is doing it.

If people believe that, that's because they insist on pure propaganda and refuse to look at the facts. You can easily see whether in fact I said that. I didn't. And I don't believe it. I can't help what intellectuals decide to believe. If they want to fabricate propaganda images and believe what they say or they hear in gossip, that's their metier.

As you know, people like you and Susan Sontag have gotten a lot of outraged reactions to some of the things you've said after Sept. 11 -- again, even from some on the left. What do you think about the future of the American left?

It's certainly much better than it's been in the past. The outraged reactions are coming mostly from intellectuals, liberal intellectuals. But that's standard. It was much worse in the '60s. In fact, liberal intellectuals typically tend to support the use of state violence. Who initiated the Vietnam War? Liberal intellectuals, that was Kennedy's war. Back in those days, in the early '60s, I remember very well attempts to raise even the most mild criticism of the war at that time. You couldn't get four people in an auditorium to listen to you. In Boston, which is a pretty liberal city, we couldn't have a public demonstration against the war until about 1966 without it being physically attacked by people and protected by police. It's incomparably better.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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