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An Interview with Noam Chomsky

"The Strong Do as They Can"

by NERMEEN AL-MUFTI

Noam Chomsky, in an interview with Al-Ahram’s NERMEEN AL-MUFTI, takes stock of the month-long US-Israeli onslaught on Lebanon and reflects on the fallout.

Why is Israel given the right to self- defense while Arab countries are denied it?

Thucydides gave an answer to that a long time ago: "The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer as they must." It is one of the leading principles of international affairs.

Many Arab states declared that they would not sever relations with Israel, saying that this was Hizbullah’s war, the consequences Hizbullah’s fault. Do you think there was — and perhaps remains — American pressure behind these statements?

At an emergency Arab League meeting, most Arab states — apart from Algeria, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen — condemned Hizbullah. In doing so, they were willing to "openly defy public opinion", as The New York Times reported. They later had to back down, including Washington’s oldest and most important ally in the region, Saudi Arabia.

King Abdullah said that, "if the peace option is rejected due to Israeli arrogance, then only the war option remains, and that no one knows the repercussions on the region, including wars and conflict that will spare no one, including those whose military power is now tempting them to play with fire."

Most analysts assume — plausibly I think — that their primary concern is the growing influence of Iran, and the embarrassment caused by the fact that alone in the Arab world, Hizbullah has offered support for Palestinians under brutal attack in the occupied territories.

Was there any legal or moral justification for this war, as Bush, Rice and Western news media insisted?

We can ignore Bush and Rice, who are participants in the US-Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

We know very well that by Western standards there is no moral or legal justification for the war. Sufficient proof is the fact that for many years Israel regularly kidnapped Lebanese, sending them to prisons in Israel, including secret prisons like the notorious Camp 1391, which was exposed by accident and quickly forgotten (and in the US, never even reported within the mainstream). No one suggested that Lebanon, or anyone else, had the right to invade and destroy much of Israel in retaliation.

As this long and ugly record makes clear, kidnapping of civilians — a far worse crime than the capture of soldiers — is considered insignificant by the US, UK, and other Western states, and by articulate opinion within them quite generally, when it is done by "our side".

That fact was revealed very dramatically once again at the outset of the current upsurge of violence after Hamas captured an Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, on June 25. That action elicited a huge show of outrage in the West, and support for Israel’s sharp escalation of its attacks in Gaza. One day before, on June 24, Israeli forces kidnapped two civilians in Gaza, a doctor and his brother, and sent them off somewhere in Israel’s prison system. The event was scarcely reported, and elicited little if any comment within the mainstream. The timing alone reveals with vivid clarity that the show of outrage over the capture of Israeli soldiers is cynical fraud, and undermines any shreds of moral legitimacy for the ensuing actions.

So for Israel, any pretext could justify daily massacres in Lebanon and Gaza?

With a vivid imagination, one can conjure up all sorts of pretexts. In the real world, there are none. And we may add the forgotten West Bank, where the US and Israel are proceeding with their plans to drive the last nails into the coffin of Palestinian national rights by their programs of annexation, cantonization and imprisonment (by takeover of the Jordan Valley). These plans are carried out within the framework of another cynical fraud: "convergence" (in Hebrew, hitkansut ), portrayed in the US as "withdrawal", in a remarkable public relations triumph. Also long forgotten is the occupied Golan Heights, virtually annexed by Israel in violation of unanimous Security Council orders (but with tacit US support).

As an Iraqi, I understand that the ongoing war against Lebanon and Gaza is an essential part of the Bush scheme of reshaping the region: to redraw the borders mapped by Sykes- Picot…

I doubt that most of them have even heard of Sykes-Picot. They have their own plans for the region. Primary among them is the traditional commitment to control the world’s major energy resources. Those who do not fall in line can expect to be targets of subversion or aggression. That should not be surprising, at least to those familiar with the history of the past century — in fact well before.

Do you think that Iran and Syria were behind this war, as Bush inferred?

It is generally assumed that they at least gave Hizbullah authorization for the July 12 attack on Israeli military forces at the border. However, many of the most serious analysts of Hizbullah, and of Iran, have concluded that Hizbullah’s actions are taken on its own initiative.

How can we explain the role of the Security Council in destroying Lebanon and Gaza now, and Iraq before?

The Security Council acts within constraints set by the great powers, primarily the United States. In turn, the United States can generally rely on Britain, particularly Blair’s Britain, which is described sardonically in Britain’s leading journal of international affairs as "the spear-carrier of the pax Americana."

In the early post-war years, for obvious reasons, the UN was generally under US domination, and was very popular among US elites. By the mid- 1960s, that was becoming less true, with decolonization and the recovery of industrial societies from wartime devastation. Since that time, the US has been far in the lead in vetoing Security Council resolutions on a wide range of issues, with Britain second, and none of the others even close.

Correspondingly, elite support for the UN sharply declined in the US, though, interestingly, popular support for the UN remains remarkably high, one of the many illustrations of an enormous gap between public opinion and public policy in the US.

Over and above that crucial constraint, US power allows it to shape those resolutions and actions that it is willing to accept. Other powers have their own cynical reasons for what they do, but their influence is naturally less — again, the maxim of Thucydides. Popular forces could make a substantial difference, and sometimes do, but until the prevailing "democratic deficit" is reduced, that effect will be limited.

I am unable to understand this Israeli arrogance. Are you?

The maxim of Thucydides again. But it is worth bearing in mind that Israel can go just as far as its protector in Washington permits and supports.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly.