Legendary linguist, activist, and political theorist Noam Chomsky has been speaking out against U.S. interventionism from Vietnam to Latin America to the Middle East since the 1960s. He’s the most cited author alive, but you won’t see him on the nightly news or in the pages of most major newspapers. On this week’s Deconstructed, Chomsky sits down with Mehdi Hasan to discuss the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, the 2020 Democratic field, and why he opposed Trump’s Syria troop withdrawal.
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Noam Chomsky: The current moment is the most grim moment in human history and the wrecking ball in the White House just doesn’t give a damn. He’s having fun. He’s serving his rich constituency. So what the hell, let’s destroy the world.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan.
This week who better to speak with about a combination of domestic and international crises, from violence in Syria to the Democratic presidential race in the U.S., than the legendary writer, activist, and political theorist, Noam Chomsky. Wanna know what he makes of impeachment too?
NC: I mean, Trump is impeachable 100 times over. He’s a major crook. Is it politically wise? I frankly doubt it.
MH: Today, in a special episode of Deconstructed, I speak to the one, the only, Noam Chomsky.
My guest today has been a scathing critic of U.S. presidents, and especially U.S. foreign policy, for more than 50 years. He rose to prominence as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam war and was even included on Richard Nixon’s Enemies List. An academic, activist and best-selling author, he’s been described as “the founding father of linguistic philosophy,” but he’s best known today as the intellectual hero to anti-capitalists, anti-imperialists, socialists and anarchists.
I’m talking of course about Noam Chomsky, who is often referred to as one of the 10 most quoted sources in the humanities, along with Shakespeare and the Bible, and yet you rarely if ever, see him quoted, published or invited onto the mainstream media, whether it’s the New York Times op-ed page or CNN primetime.
Chomsky, the arch-anti-interventionist surprised a lot of people last year on my colleague Jeremy Scahill’s Intercepted podcast, when he said that the U.S. should maintain a troop presence in Syria in order to deter Turkish aggression against the Kurds. Does he still feel that way today, in the wake of President Trump’s controversial withdrawal of U.S. troops? And what’s his view on impeaching Trump and on the presidential prospects of his old friend Senator Bernie Sanders?
Recently — and I should add shortly before Donald Trump announced the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi — Noam Chomsky joined me for an interview from his new academic base at the University of Arizona, where, aged 90, he’s now laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics and chair of an environment and social justice program.
MH: Professor Chomsky, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
Noam Chomsky: Very pleased to be with you.
MH: In recent weeks, we’ve seen some pretty gruesome images coming out of northeastern Syria, rebel groups backed by Turkey on the offensive killing and mutilating, not just Kurdish fighters from the SDF, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, but women and children too.
Announcer [translated from Arabic]: This house you see here, there were children playing. A motor fell and killed a boy. The girl she lost her leg.
MH: Am I right in saying that you didn’t support President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the front lines in Syria?
NC: That’s correct. For a long time, I’ve been trying to organize support for opposition to the withdrawal.
MH: And why is that?
NC: Because the, from the left at least, the call for withdrawal was based on anti-imperialist principles. But principles have to be understood in connection with the human reality of the existing circumstances. A small, U.S. contingent with the sole mission of deterring a planned Turkish invasion, which was obvious, is not imperialism. It’s protecting the Kurds from an expansion of the atrocities and massacres that Erdogan has been carrying out both within Turkey itself and in the areas of Syria that he’s already conquered.
MH: And a lot of people listening especially on the left might be surprised to hear you say this. They might say Noam Chomsky, we associate him with anti-interventionism, with opposition to U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. military interventions abroad. Why are the Kurds the exception to that, you know, life-long, career-long opposition to U.S. military interventions, especially in the Middle East?
NC: If you take a look at what’s happening, it’s not intervention. Syria was already invaded by Turkey. The troops that are there were essentially doing nothing except deterring an expansion of a further invasion. You have to not deal with slogans as if it’s a religious catechism. You have to ask how they apply in particular to complex human circumstances.
MH: I take your point. But I do want to explore this a bit more broadly because I’ve agreed with a lot of what you’ve written over the years in terms of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Latin America. And as you know, and you’ve written so eloquently on, a lot of these interventions, invasions, bombing campaigns, regime changes, are justified on humanitarian grounds, with leaders saying what you’re saying that we should protect civilians. A liberal interventionist listening to you speaking now might say, “Well, why didn’t Noam Chomsky support the Kosovo intervention to protect Albanians? Why didn’t he support a no fly zone for Syrian Arabs in Idlib or Aleppo who were being bombed by Assad? Why only the Kurds?”
NC: Let’s take your first example, Kosovo. I opposed the NATO bombing because it was known both to the Clinton administration and to the press, which refused to report it, that the bombing would radically increase the level of crimes and atrocities against the people in Kosovo. General Wesley Clark informed the Clinton administration weeks earlier that that’s exactly what would happen. He informed the press when the invasion began that that’s what was gonna happen. The reason I opposed it was because there were diplomatic options available. And instead, NATO, meaning the U.S., chose to undertake a major military attack consciously knowing that it would greatly increase atrocities as the Serbs couldn’t react by bombing Washington. So they’d react on the ground.
You have to ask yourself, in each circumstance, what are the consequences of your decisions? If you don’t do that, you’re not a moral human being. Now you’re perfectly right that every monster you can think of in history has declared that whatever acts they’re going to carry out are for humanitarian reasons. Now, if you have a brain functioning, what you do is ask is this correct? Or isn’t it correct? You don’t say, because Hitler said it was a humanitarian intervention in the Sudetenland therefore, there are no humanitarian interventions.
MH: No, of course, but in Syria, for example, as you know, very complicated conflict with people, you know, people of good faith and bad faith on many sides. There are a lot of Syrian Arabs who would say, why didn’t Noam Chomsky ask for U.S. troops to protect us when we were being butchered by Assad? Why only for the Kurds when they’re being butchered by Erdogan?
NC: Because there was no way for a small contingent of U.S. troops to deter Assad. What in fact was done was that under Obama when they were still planning to overthrow the regime, the CIA was providing heavy weapons to the rebels who were by then mostly jihadi rebels.
Newscaster: There’s word tonight that the CIA has been delivering weapons to rebels in Syria over the last two weeks. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration is sending vehicles and other equipment to boost the muscle of rebel fighters in Syria’s two-year civil war.
NC: They in fact, slowed down Assad’s advance, but quite predictably, they brought the Russians in to escalate the conflict.
Newscaster: There’s growing concern among top officials in the Defense Department over Russia’s growing involvement in Syria’s civil war. It’s escalating by the day and so are the risks of a confrontation with the U.S.
NC: So yes, you have to ask yourself, what are the likely predictable consequences in every situation? You can’t find formulas in human affairs that will determine the action in every particular case.
MH: And just on Iran, because as you well know, a lot of U.S. politicians, especially on the right, they want American troops in Syria, partly to “deter Iran.”
Mitt Romney: At a time when we’re applying maximum pressure on Iran by giving them a stronger hand in Syria, we’ve actually weakened that pressure.
Lindsey Graham: President Trump, if you remove all of our forces from Syria, you’re throwing the Kurds over. ISIS will come back on your watch and Iran will take over.
MH: How worried are you about a U.S. attack on Iran next year? Because it’s election year and with Trump behind in the polls, I for one can see the appeal for Trump of launching a new war in the Middle East in the run up to November?
NC: Well, first of all, let’s separate those two issues. A small contingent of troops to deter Turkish aggression would have nothing to do with Iran. So we put that aside, what are the prospects for a war against Iran? It’s hard to say. I don’t think the Trump administration could answer. I don’t think they want a war. A war could have extremely harsh effects not only out of Iran, but much more generally. So for example, Saudi Arabia’s major oil production, almost all the oil production is in the northeast corner right in the Shiite areas, very close to Iran. They have missile capacities. They could devastate one of the main oil producers in the world.
There could be many other consequences. So I don’t think the United States wants a war with Iran. What they want to do is torture Iranians as much as possible in the hope that destruction of the economy will lead to some breakdown inside Iran. But that can easily get out of hand. Any accidental incidents in the Gulf, could blow up suddenly and could lead to an attack.
Newscaster: Tensions on the rise in the Persian Gulf once again. The United States says Iran is behind attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf. Now, lawmakers say the Trump administration says it already has the legal authority to begin a war with Iran.
NC: It wouldn’t really be an invasion. The U.S. is not going to invade Iran. That’s much too costly. It would be an attack from a safe distance.
MH: And of course, as you say, that could escalate as well. No one knows what the unintended consequences of such dangerous action could be. I want to talk about the Donald Trump presidency especially with impeachment on the cards. But before I do, does the seemingly global rise of the far right, of authoritarianism, and nativism from Putin to Orban to Duterte to Narendra Modi in India, how much does that worry you? And what do you think is driving it at this moment in human history?
NC: Of course, it’s worrisome. It’s very hard to detect geo-strategic planning in the chaos of the Trump administration, which is highly personalized, and so, yeah, megalomaniac, and so on. But you can kind of detect something.
NC: The effort which is overt in Steve Bannon’s case to construct a kind of a reactionary international which will consist in the Middle East of the most reactionary states in the region, Saudi Arabia.
Donald J. Trump: The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a friend of mine. You’ve done really spectacular job.
NC: United Arab Emirates, Egypt under the Sisi dictatorship.
DJT: Egypt has a great leader. He’s highly respected. He’s brought order.
NC: Israel, which is now far to the right.
DJT: Netanyahu, a very special man. He’s done a great job.
NC: To be kind of a base for U.S. power in the region. And that extends beyond to try to bring Modi’s India into it.
DJT: Prime Minister Modi is doing a truly exceptional job for India.
NC: Orban is another case. Salvini in Italy, Farage if he emerges in the post-Brexit period. Bolsonaro in Brazil.
MH: But is there a particular social or economic or political driver of all this that links all this together?
NC: Sure, yeah, it’s very simple and straightforward. Forty years of the neoliberal assault on the general population which has been extremely harmful almost everywhere. It’s led to anger, resentment, contempt for institutions. And when you have a period of unfocused anger, resentment and so on, it’s fertile territory for demagogues to arise, and try to mobilize it, and blame it, not on its sources. So, like not on the international financial institutions that are lying behind it to a substantial extent. But to focus it on scapegoats. Typically, people even more vulnerable than you are, immigrants, Muslims, Afro-Americans. This goes way back to Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare queens” and so on and many other demagogues in the past. So yes, that’s rising. There are also counter-forces that are rising. Now they’re very significant. It’s pretty common these days to quote Gramsci’s famous —
NC: Yeah, Interregnum with morbid symptoms, but there are morbid symptoms and there are positive symptoms. And it’s a real question which will prevail.
MH: Let’s talk about Donald Trump specifically. You have witnessed, I think 16 presidents over the course of your lifetime. Donald Trump being the 16th. How does Trump stack up against the rest of them? Is he sui generis in your view?
NC: Yeah, he’s off the spectrum. But the fact is that that’s true of the Republican Party generally. Two well-known commentators from the American Enterprise Institute, Thomas Mann and Norman Orenstein years ago, described the Republican Party since Newt Gingrich as a radical insurgency that has abandoned parliamentary politics, and is now often a different dimension. What’s actually happened is that during the neoliberal period both of the political parties have shifted to the right. So the mainstream Democrats, the ones who are now meeting with their billionaire friends to try to figure out how to get rid of Sanders and Warren, they’re basically what used to be called moderate Republicans. The Democrats abandoned the working class by the late ’70s. The last bit of a show of interest was the Humphrey Hawkins 1978 Full Employment Bill which Carter watered down so that it had no teeth. And after that, they kind of gave up. They handed the working class over to their class enemy, the Republicans who try to mobilize them on what are called cultural issues. They’re shafting them at every turn, including Trump, but you can try to mobilize them on the basis of abortion, immigrants, guns, anything but the real issues.
MH: And I agree with you that the Republican party as you said, you call them the biggest threat to mankind in terms of their views on climate change. As you say, the radical insurgency, but having said that, even a Ted Cruz or a Mike Pence, as radical as they may be, they still fit within some sort of understandable political prism. Trump, as you say, is off the spectrum. Have you ever seen a western Democratic leader like him in your lifetime? Who behaves like him, talks like him?
NC: No. But it’s worth looking back a little bit. So for the last, I suppose, 15 years, take a look at the Republican primaries. Every Republican primary, a candidate who arose from the base was so outrageous that the Republican establishment tried and succeeded in suppressing them. Michele Bachmann —
Michele Bachmann: Carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas. It is a harmless gas.
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