The linguist and philosopher on the warped coverage of Putin’s Russia and the ways we whitewash our war crimes
Earlier this month, Dan Falcone and Saul Isaacson, both high school educators, sat down with Noam Chomsky in his Cambridge, MA office. In a brief conversation, edited and condensed here for clarity, they covered a wide range of topics — the projection of US power abroad and the stories told to justify it; COINTELPRO and domestic repression; the failures of the mainstream media; the West’s posture toward Putin; and much more. As always, we’re happy to publish Professor Chomsky’s invaluable insights.
I was recently in correspondence with a good friend of yours, Richard Falk, and we were discussing Juan Cole’s idea of “essentialism” as it pertains to the Muslim world. And this led me to think about how essentialism is present in liberal education.
For instance, take a good and appropriate cause like education for Muslim girls and how they face Taliban oppression. This is important to fight, obviously, but often the struggle is taught without the mentioning of American foreign policy or our own international crimes isolated from the entirety of the phenomenon. This type of lesson planning in secondary education gets laudatory reviews. Could you help me in contextualizing this?
Well take, say, the Taliban education that comes out of madrassas in Pakistan, and is funded by our main ally, Saudi Arabia, and was supported by the Reagan administration — because it was part of the support of Pakistan, primarily as a war against the Russians.
Well, the United States tried to keep the Russians in Afghanistan, and the goal was very explicitly stated by the CIA station chief in Islamabad, which got around the insurgency. What he said was, we don’t care about the liberation of Afghanistan. We want to kill Russians. A large part of that was to also support the worst dictatorship in Pakistan, the General Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship, who was allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
The Reaganites pretended they didn’t know, but of course they did, so that they could keep pouring funds in. The other thing that they were doing was radically “Islamizing” Pakistani society. So, the Saudis are not only the most extreme radical fundamentalists in the Islamic world and our main allies, but also a kind of missionary, and they have plenty of money. They have other wealthy sectors too, but they pour money into building mosques, Quranic schools, and so on. That’s where a lot of the Taliban came from.
So yes, we had a big role in it — plus, it’s worse than that. I mean if you take a look at the serious history after the Russians withdrew, they left behind the Najibullah government, which was pretty reasonable in many ways. In fact, for women, at least in Kabul and places like that, they’re way better off than they’ve been any time since the Russians.
And the Najibullah government, which was pretty popular, maintained itself until two events took place. 1) The Russians withdrew, pulled out, ended support, and 2) The US maintained support for the mujahideen, who are mostly religious extremists and fundamentalists — guys who throw acid at women if they aren’t wearing the right clothes and so on. And they devastated Kabul, they practically destroyed it. They took over. Their rule was so awful that when the Taliban came in, they were actually welcomed.
Well, that’s part of history too, you know? Plus a lot that’s happened since isn’t very pretty. So yeah, if you want to study the education of the Taliban, these are things to do. And it’s not that we can’t read things, like you can read the story of Malala Yousafzai, which is very evocative.
She talks about the warlord society and so on, which the US instituted. There are other things one could read. I mean, there’s a very good book by Anand Gopal which came out recently. Although he’s pretty sympathetic to the US position, so it’s mostly about what he calls “mistakes” — how the United States essentially reconstructed the Taliban by misunderstanding the society.
But what he describes is very persuasive. He goes through, and he knows the country very well. And he describes in great detail how the gangsters and warlords and criminals manipulated the US forces. Some group would say, you’ve got to attack these guys over there, they happen to be a personal enemy claiming that they’re Taliban supporters. So the US would send in Special Forces and bombers and beat the shit out of everyone — and upgraded Taliban supporters.
Gopal says the Taliban basically withdrew when the US invaded. But then we helped them come back by means like these; through reconstructing the insurgency, which the government now can’t control.
So, there’s a simultaneous support for the bandits . . .
Part of it was purposeful by the Reagan administration. Part of it is maybe just kind of arrogant ignorance. Assuming we understand how to do things when you know actually nothing about the society and just hit it with a sledgehammer and you end up supporting, maybe inadvertently, the most criminal elements who then are using the sledgehammer for their own purposes. You know, to smash up their personal enemies.
I remember some of your talks after September 11, 2001, you were mentioning how there was a lot of praise for works in the social sciences where authors were reviewing books that would say America’s really only flaw is not doing enough in reaction to other people’s crimes.
It goes on right now. Take a look at the current issue of Middle East Journal. It is one of the more free, open, most critical of professional journals. It’s been pretty good in the past, but there’s a symposium. It’s a large part of the issue, and it includes ambassadors, generals, and all kinds of big shots. They’re discussing the problems in the Middle East, the total chaos and what can we do better than in the past to stabilize the Middle East?
I mean, where did the chaos come from in Iraq and Libya? We did it. But the only question you can ask is how can we perform better in stabilizing the Middle East? Then of course there are these destabilizing elements like Iran, a rogue state, and the greatest threat to world peace. How are they to be stabilized in the Middle East?
If you take a look after the nuclear agreement, immediately there’s a lot of commentary. The New York Times had a front page, a think piece, from one of their big thinkers, Peter Baker. It says basically in agreement, you can’t trust Iran. You know, they destabilize the Middle East, and then he gives a list of reasons — each of them very interesting. But the most interesting is that one of the main crimes of Iran is that they were supporting militias that killed American soldiers.
In other words when we invade and destroy another country, that’s stabilizing, and if someone defends themselves that is destabilizing. That shows up in popular culture like this horrible film American Sniper. Take a look at it. The memoir is worse than the film, but it comes out that the first kill, the one he’s really proud of, is a woman and a child who are holding a grenade when their town is being attacked by American marines.
And they are savages, monsters, we hate them, they have to be murdered, and everybody’s applauding. I mean, even the New York Times arts pages was talking about what a wonderful film it was. It’s just mind-boggling.
Speaking of mind-boggling, and international terror, I wanted to ask about domestic terror. I wanted to ask you about COINTELPRO. It does not get a lot of mentioning in the social science or historical educational curriculum. Can you tell me about COINTELPRO and the importance of teaching and learning about it in the democratic society?
It’s an understatement to say it receives little attention. COINTELPRO was a program by the national political police, the FBI, which is basically what they are. It ran through four administrations, and it was conscious. It began by going after the Communist Party in the 1950s. It then extended into the Puerto Rican independence movement and the American Indian movements, the women’s movement, and the whole New Left. But the main target was the black movement.
It was a major program of disruption and went all the way to direct political assassination. The worst case was Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, who were simply murdered in a gestapo-style attack set up by the FBI. They were very effective black organizers. The FBI didn’t care much about the criminals, but they wanted to go after the effective organizers. It happened to have been exposed in the courts at about the same time as Watergate. I mean, in comparison to this program, Watergate is a tea party, nothing.
I was asked by the New York Review to write a brief article and a symposium when Watergate was exposed. But I had just read about this. I said look, Watergate is showing how famous people receive bad names in private and that shakes the foundation of the republic? And at the very same time you get the exposure of this incredible program, which went all the way to political assassination so it’s far more significant.
The following of the stories that are the petty crimes insulate the powerful from the major crimes.
If you look at yesterday’s New York Times, there’s a very interesting comparison between two stories. One of them is a front-page story, big continuation page. It’s about the journalistic malfeasance found in the Rolling Stone article. It’s a huge statement about terrible reporting. You know, they said the crime was a lack of skepticism, a terrible journalistic crime.
They have another article on Laos, which is quite interesting. It’s about an important woman, a Lao-American woman who’s working on trying to do something about the unexploded bombs that are killing people over in Northern Laos. And it cites a source, the right source, Fred Branfman, and his book, Voices from the Plain of Jars. And that’s where they get their information from.
Then it says, for the United States, the target of the US bombing was the Ho Chi Minh Trail where North Vietnamese were coming to South Vietnam and the Lao collaborators with the North Vietnamese. What are the facts in Fred Branfman’s book? The US was attacking Northern Laos. In fact, it’s shown on the map they were attacking, and it had nothing to do with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, no North Vietnamese.
Why were they doing it? Fred documented it. He quotes Monteagle Stearns, who was asked in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, why are we bombing this remote area of Northern Laos and wiping it out? And he gives the answer. He says there was a bombing halt over North Vietnam. And we had all these planes around and we didn’t have anything to do with them. So we destroyed Northern Laos.
That’s transmuted in the New York Times into straight government propaganda. And that’s an absolutely colossal lie. Is that going to beinvestigated by the Columbia Journalism Review? We’re going to have front-page stories? No. It’s an amazing comparison, and it’s every day.
Stephen Cohen has argued that we’re closer to war with Russia than we have been since the Cuban missile crisis. Do you think he’s overstating the crisis in Ukraine?
I don’t think so. I mean the government of Ukraine that came in after the coup, the parliament, voted almost unanimously to pursue membership in NATO. As Cohen and many others have pointed out, that is something utterly intolerable to any Russian leader. It’s kind of as if the Warsaw Pact had taken over South America and was now going to include Mexico and Canada. So, yeah, that’s serious.
It’s interesting the way Putin is treated. I think it is maybe in the same Middle East Journal I read recently, talking about supporting the US position on the Ukraine, and some serious person saying this will be opposed by North Korea, the Islamic state, and Stephen Cohen. [To question the US position on Ukraine means you will receive threats from] Stalinist apologists and get a bitter pronunciation of dismissal and ridicule.
He also suggests that we’re on the verge of a new Cold War.
It’s serious. I mean, look, Gorbachev agreed to the unification of Germany — and even its incorporation with NATO, which is an amazing concession if you look at history. But there was a quid pro quo: that NATO would “not expand one inch to the east,” that was the phrase, meaning to East Germany.
Once NATO had expanded to East Germany, Gorbachev was infuriated. He was informed by the Bush 41 administration that it was only a verbal promise. It wasn’t on paper, and the implication is if you’re dumb enough to accept a gentleman’s agreement with us, that’s your problem. Then Clinton came in, expanded NATO to the borders of Russia. And now it’s gone further, even to Ukraine which is right at the heart of, apart from historical connections, of Russian geo-strategic concerns. That’s very serious.
And it’s getting so little press, so little coverage in the US.
Not only little coverage but what there is, is insane. I mean it’s all about what a lunatic Putin is. There’s an article in one of the psychology journals about how he must have Asperger’s or some other articles about how he has brain damage. I mean, you can like him or not, but his position is perfectly understandable.
Finally, can you comment on the Holocaust Memorial and how the museum connects itself to the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect?” (R2P) What is America’s interest with R2P or the “Responsibility to Protect?”
The Holocaust Memorial Museum was established in the 1970s, part of a huge expansion of Holocaust studies, memorials, etc. The date is of some significance. The right time would have been decades earlier, but that was before US relations with Israel were established in their current form (after the 1967 war), and inconvenient questions might have been raised about the US’s attitudes towards the Holocaust and particularly towards survivors.
Also striking is the absence of any remotely comparable reaction to enormous US crimes, such as virtual elimination of the indigenous population and the vicious slave labor camps that had an enormous role in the prosperity of the country. The lesson seems to be clear: we can lament the hideous crimes of others, when it is convenient to do so, but only the crimes of others.
As for R2P, there are two versions of the doctrine. One was adopted by the UN General Assembly. Changes from earlier UN resolutions are slight, and crucially, it maintains the essential provisions of the UN Charter barring the use of force without Security Council authorization (or in response to armed attack, irrelevant here).
The second version, in a report by a commission headed by Gareth Evans, is almost the same, but with one crucial difference: it authorizes regional groups to intervene with force within what they take to be their domains without Security Council authorization. There is only one regional group that can act this way: NATO.
So the Evans version essentially allows NATO (meaning the US) to resort to force when it chooses to do so. That is the operative version. Appeal is made to the innocuous UN version to justify the resort to force.
The case that was in everyone’s mind was the NATO attack on Serbia in the Kosovo conflict, bitterly condemned by most of the world but applauded by the NATO countries as a wonderful tribute to their magnificence.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements.