Introduction: Hello and welcome to Cutting Edge Perspective. I am Paranjoy Guha Thakurta in the Ashok Hotel, New Delhi and the guest on the programme is Professor Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky is much more than a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with which institute he has been associated for four and a half decades. Prof Chomsky is arguably one of the most trenchant critics of the American establishment and one of the finest intellectuals of our time.
Question: Professor Chomsky, thank you for granting this interview. At a time when American planes are bombing Afghanistan, at a time when we hear spokespersons of the Bush administration talking about continuing operations right through the month of Ramzan, what do you see as the future of Afghanistan?
Chomsky: The future of Afghanistan is very grim. The past twenty years has been a period of horror. the Russian invasion, the US-British-French-Egyptian organised mercenary force of radical Islamists were not organised to save Afghanistan but to harass the Russians. Between them, they tore the country to shreds. In the 1990s, things got worse. Even before September 11, five or six million people were facing starvation and were being kept alive by food supplies from international agencies. Immediately after September 11, the national press in the United States, the New York Times, announced that the Bush administration had demanded that Pakistan stop sending food to Afghanistan. International aid workers were withdrawn under the threat of bombing. The population started fleeing.
Q: I want to interrupt you. What the Americans are now doing is that they are not just throwing bombs in Afghanisation, they are also dumping food packets.
Chomsky: (Dropping of) food packets have been bitterly condemned by every international agency, the Red Cross, the World Food Programme, the UN special rapporteur on food. Not only are they meaningless, they are probably harmful. They are harmful because every agency has pointed out that if you want to do air-drops, you have to prepare the ground, you have to make sure there are people there to distribute (the food), you have to make sure that people don't go to dangerous areas but to safe areas and you have to make sure that the people who will receive the food are those who need it - the women, the children, the ill and so on -- and not men who would take the food and sell it in the bazaar. The food drops have been subject to scathing condemnation by just about every aid agency and international authority. If anything, they are harmful. The food that should come in should be trucked in and that has been sharply cut back because of the withdrawal of the aid agencies. Since the bombing, the estimates are that the number of people facing imminent starvation has gone up by 50 per cent and that's 2.5 million people. We don't know what will happen but those are the assumptions on which policy is based.
Q: Let us try and anticipate what may happen. In the late-1960s, public opinion in America started changing when the body-bags started coming back from Vietnam. The media is today showing pictures and images of children hurt, families whose homes have been derstroyed. How long do you expect the intervention to continue and when do you see American public opinion changing?
Chomsky: First of all, what you said is the propaganda image, the pretence. It is a pretence that Americans turned against the war (in Vietnam) because the body-bags were coming back. That's a very convenient pretence for those in power. They don't want to admit the truth, which is that public opinion started changing because of the atrocities of the war that they were seeing. Nobody opposed the Second World War because lots of body-bags were coming back. The Vietnam war was opposed because it was considered an immoral war. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the public, since the late-1960s, on regular polls, describes the war as fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake. There is a propaganda concoction called the Vietnam syndrome. It claims that the American population will not accept casualties. It is simply untrue. Every poll shows that the population does not like casualties of course but is willing to accept casualties in a conflict it feels is just. They are not willing to accept casualties in something they believe is a crime.
Q: In other words, you will not be surprised if the intervention (of America in Afghanistan) is long drawn-out, continues for many more months like the Gulf war.
Chomsky: First of all, the Gulf war was very brief, six weeks. There was a reason for it. We know that one of the good things about the United States is that it has a very leaky government. Lots of government documents leak because people inside don't like what is going on. When the first Bush administration came in 1989, like every administration, they did an intelligence analysis of the world and parts of it were leaked - probably from the intelligence agency or the Pentagon - to the public. It said, and I'm quoting, in the case of a conflict with a much weaker enemy, the US must win decisively and rapidly. Otherwise, political support will erode. It's not the sixties anymore. In the sixties, the population was willing to tolerate a much longer war, against primarily South Vietnam. But this is not true any more. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration tried to duplicate John F. Kennedy and go to war against Nicaragua. They had to back off right away. There was too much popular opposition.
Q: So, are you hopeful that the bombing (in Afghanisatan) would cease in a short period of time?
Chomsky: There is a major effort being made to prevent the (US) population from understanding what is happening. The assumptions about massive starvation. The warnings from high officials of the UN. This is not reported. Most people don't know about it. What they see is that a bomb went astray and hit a village. Well, that's bad. But that's is a tiny factual part of the atrocity. Well, there are hardly any troops on the ground and virtually no reporters, except Al-Jazeera, so you are not hearing much. But as the information becomes disseminated, the opposition -- which is already significant -- will increase. In fact, most of the population already is opposed to bombing which harms civilians.
Q: Prof Chomsky, there is an old saying that one man's meat is another man's poison. One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. These images, these perceptions are created largely by the media. The Gulf war saw CNN bring the war inside the homes of millions and millions of people. This time round, CNN appears to have been upstaged by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera (television) channel which was relatively unknown until recently.
Chomsky: It wasn't unknown in the Arab world. Al-Jazeera was very well known. In fact, it is the one free and open channel in the entire Arabic speaking world and it is widely viewed by all Arabic speaking people all over, including in the US. Al-Jazeera has been open to a whole wide range of opinions and discussions. I profess to admit an interest -- I have been interviewed on it. But they have had everyone from Secretary of State Powell to (former Israeli Prime Minister) Barak to Osama bin Laden.
Q: Would you say that compared to what took place a decade ago, this time the American establishment has sought to control the media to a greater extent. (US National Security Adviser) Condoleeza Rice has urged the media not to broadcast what Osama bin Laden has said exactly the way he said it, apparently because he may be conveying hidden signals. The CNN chief executive has asked reporters to "balance" their coverage by adding a bit of editorial comment.
Chomsky: That's uniform and happens not just in the United States but every other country I know. As a matter of fact, I think the media now is more open than it was ten years ago, less distorting. The media is certainly much more open than it was, say, in the 1960s. For example, during the Gulf war, the media almost totally suppressed - very few people even know it -- the fact that the United States supported Saddam Hussain through his worst atrocities, as did Britain. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton and others talk about this monster who gassed his own people. Yes, he did, with US and British support and they continued to support him. If there was minimal honest coverage, those words would have added every time Tony Blair would say look at this monster who gassed his own population. The support continued up until the war. As soon as Saddam Hussain realised he was getting into bad trouble, he offered to withdraw. But those withdrawal offers were not reported. There were a few leaks here and there. It was mostly not known. This continued until the war. The US did not want him to withdraw, nor did Britain. After the war, in March 1991, when the US had total control of the air, there was a huge rebellion in the south (of Iraq), a rebellion of Shia-ites, supported by certain Iraqi generals. They did not ask the US for support, they asked for access to captured equipment. And they asked that the US not permit Saddam to attack them. The US backed off. It allowed Saddam to use the air force to attack them and carry out a major massacre, probably worse than what took place during the war. This was barely reported. I mean this tells you what was going on.
Q: But do you not see greater transparency this time? Do you not see the mainstream America media talking more about the fact that for years on end, the CIA sponsored those who they are now condemning, namely, the Taliban? Do you not see a greater balance creeping into the mainstream media's coverage?
Chomsky: It is miniscule. There is a little bit of a change, not in the national press so much as in the business press, in the Wall Street Journal. Since September 11, they have for the first time been publishing fairly serious stories on attitudes in the region (near Afghanistan) and what bothers people and so on. The support of the CIA, the British and the Egyptians to the predecessors of the Taliban, well, that's rarely discussed.
Q: Do you think the mainstream media in the US is still excessively jingoistic?
Chomsky: Like all other media I know of. And as far I am aware, that's not unique to the United States.
Q: Prof Chomsky, when you look at India's position in this war in Afghanistan which is in our neighbourhood and the US position in relation to Pakistan, many here feel that the US has not been even-handed. Is this perception correct?
Chomsky: India is learning an axiom which you might call Axiom One of international affairs, namely, that states are not moral agents; they act in their own interests. So when India, a little while ago, became the most enthusiastic backer of the US militarisation of space programmes, they (the Indian government) received enormous support and acclaim as having become a civilised country and so on. You read that Pakistan is now an enemy and you didn't want to have anything to do with them. Interests changed a little bit and so policies changed. The crucial thing - and I don't want to be giving instructions to anybody - people in India ought to be asking themselves and finding answers to, is whether they want to participate in a major, a huge atrocity, namely, a war that is attacking the civilian population of Afghanistan.this is predicted to drive perhaps hundreds of thousands, may be millions of people in Afghanistan over the edge of starvation. Is that what the population of India wants to be supporting? Do they want to open the millennium with two huge atrocities? One, (which took place on) September 11. And one which is much worse and is being carried out in front of our eyes.
Q: Those questions are rhetorical and the answers are obvious. If I can change the topic to the scare about anthrax. This has raised an issue which you have raised in the past, an issue relating to intellectual property rights and the World Trade Organisation. Do you see the US position on patents changing a little bit? You have Bayer, a multinational corporation, monopolising the production of anti-anthrax medicines. Is the US realising that this kind of emphasis on product patents is perhaps not that good? The rights of the inventor, his or her incentives to make profits should be balanced with his or her obligations to the rest of society.
Chomsky: This has got nothing to do with obligations to the rest of society. This is a case in which the US has an interest in violating the TRIPs (trade-related intellectual property rights) agreement which it imposes on everyone else. When it comes to the lives of 40 million orphans in Africa who are expected to die of AIDs over the next ten years, then you have to preserve patent rights. When you have US citizens who are being affected, then all of a sudden patent rights do not matter and you have to produce generic drugs. It's once again, Axiom One of international affairs. You can say the same about free trade. Take England and India. Britain was all in favour of free trade after it had destroyed its Indian competitors through massive state intervention. Then it quickly dropped its interest in free trade when it could not compete any longer.
Q: A question about the Indian economy. We were supposed to be a mixed economy. We were supposed to take the best of capitalism and the best of communism. Some people would argue that we took the worst of both worlds. Do you see the Indian polity and the Indian economy having taken a distinct turn towards the right in the recent past?
Chomsky: Developments (in India) in recent years have, I think, been unpleasant and frightening with the rise of nationalistic extremism and fanaticism. There are huge problems. India has made a lot of achievement. Since the end of the colonial regime, it has resumed its economic growth, it has recovered from two centuries of horror and it has maintained a functioning democratic system which is no small thing. On the other hand, India has one of the worst records in the world in treating its own population. I don't have to run through the statistics, it's horrifying. These are things that have to be right at the peak of concern.
Q: Let me ask you a personal question. The fact that a person like you -- you have been associated with the MIT for four and a half decades now, you have been a trenchant critic of successive American administrations, you remain a critic of the so-called system of free enterprise capitalism -- the very fact that you have been able to express your opinions through your speeches and your writings. Is this not itself a tribute to the free enterprise system? Your voice would have muzzled in a more totalitarian regime.
Chomsky: It has nothing to do with free enterprise capitalism. It has to do with popular struggles. Over centuries, we have gained many rights, including the right of freedom of speech which is preserved in the United States and guaranteed to an extent that has no counterpart in the world. But that did not come from free enterprise capitalism. For example, the major Supreme Court decisions that really gave the First Amendment life came in the early-1960s. They grew out of the civil rights movement. Earlier rights grew out of the labour movement, the women's movement. I mean rights are not granted by powerful institutions, they are won from them by popular struggles. This (freedom of expression) is no exception. The achievement of these rights is something which is fundamental but we should look at what was responsible for them.
Q: My last question to you. Do you think the public space for intellectuals such as you - the New York Times once described you as the "clearest voice of dissent in American history" - in your society is diminishing somewhat, that people like you are playing only a marginal role in influencing public affairs?
Chomsky: Well. You don't expect mainstream institutions offering opportunities to those who are openly trying to undermine them. No, they don't, they never have. But that does not mean you have no access to the population. Everyone can have access to the population. The Vietnam anti-war movement, for example, or the civil rights movement and other major movements. They were not led by the media. They were fought by the media and not just the media but the other institutions of which the media is a part of. They developed through popular struggles. Take the issue of what is very misleadingly called globalisation. This is a particular form of investor rights integration. There is enormous popular opposition to that all over the world. That's why everything is done in secret. The opposition to globalisation is growing...
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine