Chomsky Speaks

“I’m absolutely deluged with requests right now, but I really would like to do this interview, I just don’t know when,” replied the 79 year old, prolific author, linguist, scholar and political dissident to the first of my many emails over a six-month correspondence. Noam Chomsky is the most cited, and perhaps most controversial, leading living public intellectual according to the 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll. Although mainstream media refuses him airtime, The New York Times states Chomsky remains one of the most “influential” intellectuals alive, constantly sought by students, Universities, activists, academic symposiums, and even world leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

I first met the infamous and controversial scholar activist in 2002 when I moderated a question and answer session with him at my old alma mater, U.C. California, Berkeley. [The educational and informative event was later transcribed in the book Power and Terror: Post 9-11 Talks and Interviews.] Before the program, we had a nice hour to chat, and I was impressed by his inexhaustible memory, low key demeanor, and razor sharp recollection of facts, names and dates when answering my endless questions. When I asked whether he identified himself more as a scholar or an activist, he said neither exclusively, but mentioned dissent was firmly ingrained in him after he wrote his first article condemning the rise of fascism during the Spanish Civil War. [He was ten when he wrote it.] Although many academics and intellectuals’ arrogance is outmatched only by their insecurity thereby reflecting a cold, selfish elitism, I’ve always found Chomsky to be gracious, accommodating and agreeable with his time and knowledge.

Thus, it was no surprise that after six months of email tag, Professor Chomsky “finally found a little time to respond to the questions.” In this exclusive interview, Chomsky discusses the “threat” of Iran, the parallels and dissimilarities between Vietnam and Iraq, the American media, his critics and detractors, Pakistan, and the Norman Finkelstein tenure debacle. 

ALI: In 1969, you published your first major political work, American Power and the New Mandarins, a scathing critique of the United States involvement in Vietnam and South East Asia. As you know, many have drawn parallels between our current War in Iraq with our military actions in Vietnam. (Others, of course, reject this comparison). As one with considerable experience researching both significant moments in history, are these parallels premature and presumptuous? Or, are there significant similarities that can be gleaned from both wars in relation to the United States involvement?

CHOMSKY: The primary similarities have to do with how the wars are viewed in the U.S. (and the West generally).  Apart from the margins, opinions range from “hawk” to “dove.” In both cases, the hawks say that with more commitment the U.S. could win.  The doves, in both cases, take the stand expressed by Barack Obama about Iraq (a “strategic blunder,” too costly to ourselves), or by the prominent liberal historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger in 1966, when Vietnam was coming to be seen as a venture that is too costly for the US.  Schlesinger explained that “we all pray” that the hawks will be right, and that more troops (the “surge” of the day) will bring victory.  And if they prove to be right, we may all be praising “the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government” in winning victory while leaving “the tragic country gutted and devastated by bombs, burned by napalm, turned into a wasteland by chemical defoliation, a land of ruin and wreck,” with its “political and institutional fabric” pulverized.  But escalation probably will not succeed, he felt, and will prove to be too costly for ourselves, so perhaps strategy should be rethought.  The position of the doves on Iraq is rather similar.  If, for example, General Petraeus could achieve anything like what Putin has achieved in Chechnya, he would be elevated to the Pantheon, with the applause of liberal doves.

It is next to inconceivable, within the mainstream of Western intellectual culture, that one might give a principled critique of the war – that is, the kind of critique we give reflexively, and properly, when some enemy state commits aggression: for example, when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia, or Afghanistan, or Chechnya.  We do not criticize those actions on grounds of cost, error, blunder, quagmire.  Rather, we condemn the actions as horrendous war crimes, whether they succeed or not.

The Vietnam and Iraq wars themselves, however, are quite different in motivation and character.  Vietnam was of no particular value to the U.S. in itself, even though President Eisenhower tried to arouse some support for his undermining of the Geneva peace agreements by bringing up resources of tin and rubber.  If Vietnam had disappeared into the sea, it would have been of little concern to U.S. planners. Iraq is entirely different.  It has perhaps the second largest oil reserves in the world, which are, furthermore, very cheap to extract: no permafrost or tar sands.  And it is right at the center of the world’s greatest resources of easily exploitable energy.

In the case of Vietnam, the concern was that successful independent development there might be a “virus” that would “spread contagion” to others, to borrow Henry Kissinger’s rhetoric with regard to democratic socialism in Chile.  That has been a primary motive for military intervention and subversion throughout the world since World War II – the rational version of the “domino theory.” The “contagion” is that others suffering similar burdens might see successful independent development as a model and might try to pursue the same path, and the system of domination might erode.  Even the weakest and tiniest country therefore poses extreme threats to order.

International affairs are much like the Mafia: the Godfather cannot tolerate disobedience even from a small storekeeper who fails to pay protection money, or “the rot might spread and spoil the barrel,” in the terminology of US planners: the rot of successful independent development, out of US control.  Vietnam, it was feared, might infect surrounding countries, even Indonesia, with its rich resources.  And Japan – what the prominent Asia historian John Dower called “the superdomino” – might “accommodate” to an independent East Asia, becoming its industrial and technological center, effectively recreating the “New Order” that fascist Japan had sought to construct by force during World War II.  The U.S. was not prepared to lose the Pacific phase of World War II a few years later.

When there is fear that a virus may spread contagion, the proper steps are to destroy the virus and inoculate those who might be infected.  That was done.  Vietnam was virtually destroyed (along with Indochina altogether, as the U.S. expanded its war to Laos and Cambodia).  By the late 1960s it was clear that it would never be a model for anyone, and would be lucky to survive.  And the region was “inoculated” by imposition of murderous tyrants: Suharto in Indonesia, Marcos in the Philippines, and so on.  Suharto’s military coup in 1965 was particularly important.  It was described fairly accurately.  The New York Times described it as a “staggering mass slaughter” – and also as “a gleam of light in Asia” — as Suharto’s military forces led the massacre of perhaps a million people, mostly landless peasants; destroyed the only mass popular political party in the country, a party of the poor, as it was described by Australian Indonesia specialist Harold Crouch; and opened the rich resources of the country to exploitation by Western corporations.  Euphoria was unconstrained.  In retrospect, Kennedy-Johnson National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy reflected that the U.S. should have called of the Vietnam war in 1965, after this grand victory for freedom and justice.

The U.S. achieved a significant victory in Indochina, though it did not achieve its most far-reaching objective: installing a client state.  For the imperial consciousness, the Vietnam war is therefore a “disaster.”

Iraq, as noted, is entirely different.  It is far too valuable to destroy.  It is imperative that it remain under U.S. control, if at all possible, with an obedient client state that will also house major U.S. military bases.  That these were the primary goals of the invasion was always quite obvious, but there is no longer any need to debate it.  These plans were made explicit by the Bush administration in its November 2007 declaration and subsequent pronouncements, along with the rather brazen demand that U.S. corporations must have privileged access to Iraq’s enormous oil reserves.

ALI: It seems the American public has finally discovered the existence of Pakistan after 60 years. How sincere was General Musharraf’s intentions in rebuilding a democracy in Pakistan? Specifically, why does the United States trust Musharraf over potential rivals, such as Bhutto and Zardari’s PPP, Nawaaz Sharif and others, in their “War on terrorism” and “hunt for Bin Laden?”

CHOMSKY: We need not tarry on Musharraf’s sincere intentions to rebuild democracy.  The U.S. supported him as long as possible, just as it supported earlier tyrants, like Zia ul-Haq.  Choice of allies follows a simple criterion: it depends on who is perceived to be the most loyal client, the one who can most be depended on to follow orders.  Despite occasional exceptions, the uniformity is impressive.

ALI: Recently, an U.S. intelligence report concluded that Iran had successfully stopped a nuclear weapons program 4 years ago. Iran maintains it never advanced a program in the first place. Regardless, President Bush, Israel President Olmert and ranking officials in Washington claim Iran remains a “dangerous threat” and is still in pursuit of “nuclear weapons.” How tenable are both parties’ claims (U.S. and Iran)? If it is unsubstantiated, why then the aggressive and confrontational rhetoric against Iran, and how does this benefit U.S foreign policy in the Middle Eastern region?

CHOMSKY: The claims should be evaluated by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  I have no special knowledge, of course.  It would hardly be surprising if it were discovered that Iran has some kind of nuclear weapons program, perhaps contingency plans.  The reasons were explained by one of Israel’s leading military historians, Martin van Creveld.  He argued that Iran would be “crazy” if it were not developing a nuclear deterrent in its current predicament: with hostile forces of a violent superpower on two borders and a hostile regional power (Israel) brandishing hundreds of nuclear weapons, both calling loudly for “regime change.”  Nevertheless, the available evidence indicates that if Iran had such a program, they stopped pursuing it several years ago.

From the U.S. perspective, Iran committed a grave crime in 1979.  As we know, in 1953 the U.S. and UK dismantled Iranian parliamentary democracy and installed a brutal tyrant, the Shah, who remained a pillar of U.S. control over the energy-rich region until 1979, when he was overthrown by a popular uprising.   That was rather like Cuba’s overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1959, or other acts of “successful defiance” of Washington’s principle, to borrow the terms used in internal documents.  The Godfather cannot tolerate “successful defiance.” It is far too great a threat to what is called “stability” – that is, obedience to the master. 

Iranian independence is no slight problem.  It threatens U.S. domination of one of the most valuable prizes in the world, Middle East oil.  Accordingly, from 1979 the U.S. has been bitterly hostile to Iran.  Washington backed Saddam Hussein’s vicious and murderous assault against Iran, and even after the war, continued to provide strong support to its friend Saddam, even inviting Iraqi nuclear engineers for advanced training in nuclear weapons development in 1989.  It then turned to severe sanctions against Iran, along with regular threats to attack Iran and overthrow the government.

That continues to the present.  As I write (June 15, 2008), Reuters reports that ‘Analysts believe that offering Iran security guarantees, an idea floated by Russia, could help end the deadlock, seeing such guarantees as Iran’s fundamental goal given the Bush administration’s “regime change” policy toward it. But the United States last month said major powers had no plans to make such security pledges to Tehran.’

In simple words, the US insists on maintaining its stance as an outlaw state, dismissing core principles of international law, including the UN Charter, which outlaws the threat or use of force in international affairs.  Bush is joined by both 2008 presidential candidates and by elite opinion in the U.S. and Europe – but not by the American public, which by a large majority favors diplomacy and opposes the threat of force.  But public opinion is largely irrelevant to policy formation, not just in this case.

The political class, across the spectrum with rare exceptions, is committed to maintaining U.S. control over the world’s major energy resources, and to punishing “successful defiance.” Therefore, the U.S. has tried very hard to mobilize an anti-Iranian alliance among the Sunni states of the region, though without much success.  Bush’s two trips to Saudi Arabia in early 2008 were complete failures in this regard.  The Saudi press, normally very polite to important visitors, condemned the policies proposed to them by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as “not diplomacy in search of peace, but madness in search of war.” The Gulf monarchies are no friends of Iran, but appear to prefer accommodation to confrontation, a bitter blow to U.S. policies.  Washington is facing similar problems in Iraq and Lebanon.  In the background lies a much broader concern: that the energy producers of the region may turn to the East, perhaps even following Iran to establish links to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China, Russia, and the Central Asian states, with India, Pakistan, and Iran as observers, a status denied to Washington.

ALI: A significant rise in Sunni-Shia conflict has arisen over the past few years specifically in Iraq due to the rising insurgency and civil war catalyzed by Saddam  Hussein’s fall and the resulting power vacuum. How will the “Sunni-Shia” conflict, if at all, reverberate throughout the Middle East, specifically in countries like Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon and in relation to “The War on Terror?” Are we going to see a rise in terrorism, extremism and Anti-Americanism, or will this lead the way for “Divide and conquer” and help American forces and foreign policy “pacify” the region?

CHOMSKY: According to the studies of popular opinion in Iraq by the Pentagon, sectarian conflict in Iraq was not “catalyzed by Saddam Hussein’s fall and the resulting power vacuum,” but by U.S. aggression.  To quote the Washington Post summary of the Pentagon findings released in December 2007, “Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of `occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation.” As noted, the U.S. has not had great success in inspiring a regional Sunni-Shia conflict, though the tensions and conflicts are real, and ominous.

The Iraqi invasion has increased terrorism, far more than was anticipated: seven-fold, according to an analysis of quasi-official figures by terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank.  What happens next depends in no slight measure on what U.S. policies will be, though there are many internal factors in this complex region.

ALI: On September 20, 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez promoted your book, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly praising the book for articulating why the greatest danger to world peace currently is the United States. Consequently, there was a media barrage and blitz. You rejected most of the interviews, because you mentioned the reporters didn’t bother or care to actually read the book and discuss its contents, they were instead chasing sensationalism. Does the U.S. media provide an outlet for informative and educational journalism and accurate information that is not tainted by “sensationalism” and ratings-grabbing rhetoric? Does the advent of the Internet and blogs, YouTube, webzines and the like, counter what you have called the “manufacturing of consent,” whereby powerful entities, such as corporations and the U.S. government, spoon feed the media and public convenient propaganda and half truths?

CHOMSKY If I were restricted to a single newspaper, I would choose the New York Times, even though I have written hundreds of pages documenting in detail its misrepresentations, distortions, and crucial omissions in the service of power – selecting the NYT for close examination specifically because of its importance and unmatched resources.  One can learn a great deal by careful and critical reading of the mainstream media, though other sources are very valuable.  The internet provides access to an extraordinary range of information, opinion, and interpretation.  But as with any source, it is useful to the extent that it is used with discrimination and insight.  The best biologists are not the ones who have read the most technical papers in their field, but the ones who have a framework of understanding that enables them to select what is likely to be significant, even in a paper that is otherwise of little value.  The same kind of discernment is necessary in the study of human affairs.

ALI: Your critics, and there are many, state your rhetoric and ideologies belie a broken record – an endless litany and screed of repetitive assaults against the U.S., its foreign policy, and its military actions. How do you respond to critics who insist your painting of U.S. foreign policy is both simplistic and cynical? Is the U.S. truly an evil empire? Can we not point to instances where U.S. intervention or aid was truly selfless and altruistic as per the ideals of the Constitution?

CHOMSKY: The kind of criticisms to which you refer are leveled against dissidents in just about every society in history, and are therefore rightly ignored.  If critics have arguments and evidence, I am glad to look at them, in this domain or others.  When they simply produce tantrums, of the kind to which you refer, we can dismiss the performances as another illustration of what the founder of realist international relations theory, Hans Morgenthau, called “our conformist subservience to those in power,” referring to American (in fact Western) intellectuals, always with a margin of exceptions.  I do not respond to the charge that I describe the U.S. as an “evil empire” because the charge is an infantile fabrication by desperate apologists for state power.  In fact, I repeatedly stress that the U.S. is very much like other systems of power.  True, that stance that is intolerable to nationalists, who insist on U.S. “exceptionalism” – as do the political leadership and the intellectual classes in other powerful states, past and present, quite commonly.  As for genuine “selfless and altruistic” intervention, it is very hard to find examples in the historical record, as scholarship has reviewed, though of course virtually every intervention is depicted in such terms by the perpetrators, even the worst monsters.  The picture is more ambiguous with regard to aid, but not all that different, when we look closely, again close to a historical universal, as I have discussed.

ALI: What does the Norman Finkelstein tenure debacle at Depaul and his scathing critique and dismantling of Alan Dershowitz’s book, Case for Israel, tell of intellectual honesty and integrity in the United States? Is this a warning for academics and intellectuals who don’t “play by the rules” and openly challenge ideologies espoused by powerful interest groups and lobbies? Or, is this just an isolated incident without profound implications or reflections regarding the intellectual environment of post 9-11?

CHOMSKY: The behavior of the DePaul administration in overturning the faculty recommendation for tenure was of course deplorable, but this case should not be generalized too far.  It had special features, notably the role of the desperate and fanatic Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz.  Finkelstein demonstrated with impeccable scholarship that Dershowitz is a slanderer, a liar, and a vulgar apologist for the crimes of his favored state.  Dershowitz turned over heaven and earth to try to prevent the book from being published, and after he failed, launched a hysterical crusade to try to suppress its contents.  He is not a fool, and knows that he cannot respond at the level of fact and argument, so turned to what comes naturally to him: a stream of vilification and abuse, and an extraordinary campaign of intimidation, to which the administration finally succumbed, presumably because of concerns that funders would be mobilized.  The depraved performance is reviewed with fair accuracy in standard journals, like the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I need not comment further here.

It is true that there are major efforts to prevent honest and independent discussion of Middle East issues, particularly anything relating to Israel.  Nonetheless, this is a special case.  And it has nothing to do with the post-9/11 environment.

WAJAHAT ALI is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at


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Wajahat Ali is a poet, playwright and essayist living in the Bay Area. His widely acclaimed work, The Domestic Crusaders, the first major play about Muslim-Americans was produced by Ishmael Reed. He can be reached at: