Noam Chomsky: Average People Still Have the Power to Stop Wars

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky talks to Jacobin about why the US withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t change US imperialism, the many war crimes of George W. Bush, and why he still believes in average people’s ability to push back against the war machine.

Noam Chomsky speaking at the University of Toronto in 2011. (Andrew Rusk / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
J. C. Pan
Ariella Thornhill

Noam Chomsky needs no introduction — he is widely regarded as the world’s foremost public intellectual. He’s professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT and the author of many books on politics and US foreign policy. He also has a piece forthcoming in Jacobin’s sister publication Catalyst on Israel and Palestine titled “An Era of Impunity is Over.”

Chomsky recently joined Jen Pan and Ariella Thornhill on the Jacobin Show to discuss American empire, 9/11, Afghanistan, and the antiwar movement. You can watch the full interview on YouTube.

Jennifer C. Pan

We just passed the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. There are adults in the United States who were not yet born when 9/11 happened. Joe Biden has now officially ended the War in Afghanistan by withdrawing all troops.

Do you think we’ve arrived at the end of an era? Are we witnessing the end of American empire, or at least the beginning of a new stage?

Noam Chomsky

I think the withdrawal will have practically no effect on US imperial policy. The current commentary on Afghanistan is almost entirely about what the war cost us. You find virtually nothing about what it cost Afghans.

There are a few interesting articles showing that what the press understood very well twenty years ago, but were ridiculing, was in fact correct: there was no reasonable basis for the war in the first place. Osama bin Laden was only a suspect when the United States started bombing Afghanistan. If there’s a suspect whom you want to apprehend, you carry out a small police operation. They could’ve apprehended him, then worked to discover if he was actually responsible, which they didn’t know.

In fact, that was conceded eight months later. Robert Muller, head of the FBI, gave his first extensive press conference in which he said — after probably the most intensive investigation in the world — that we assume al-Qaeda and Bin Laden were responsible for 9/11, but we haven’t been able to establish it yet. First you bomb, then you check to see if there was any reason.

We now know that the Taliban were willing to surrender in 2001. But defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld proudly announced, “We don’t negotiate surrenders.”

The Taliban’s proposed terms were that their leading figures be allowed to live in dignity. Why not? They hadn’t done anything. The story was that they had harbored terrorists. Don’t we do that? We harbor some of the worst war criminals in modern times — including people who are recognized to be terrorists, like Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada, who were allowed to live happily in Florida under US protection.

There’s no question. Nobody doubted they were terrorists. They were responsible for, among other things, the bombing of a Cubana airliner in which seventy-three people were killed. It’s called terrorism if someone else does it. If we do it, it’s fun and games.

So there was no reason not to allow the Taliban to live in dignity — except for what was explained by the most prominent figure of the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance, Abdul Haq. He was interviewed by a highly regarded Middle East/Central Asia specialist, Anatol Lieven, in the British press. Haq bitterly condemned the invasion, as did other Afghan anti-Taliban activists. He said, “The US is trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They don’t care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose.” Abdul Haq was killed by the Taliban soon thereafter.

Anybody who shared Haq’s view at the time was either ignored or ridiculed by the mainstream press. Now they’re conceding that it was correct.

Is this the end of the empire? No. All that’s resulted is the acknowledgment that the War in Afghanistan was too costly to us, so we’ll do things differently going forward.

Ariella Thornhill

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the framework people use to understand the withdrawal from Afghanistan is comparing the cost of the war to potential domestic spending on social welfare programs or other things that could benefit Americans. You’ve pointed out that this is a moral issue, and that we owe Afghans after decades of terror.

What’s a better framework to talk about ending US military campaigns? What do we owe Afghans as we withdraw? And what can the Left do to put pressure on the US government to ensure that we are, in some way, repairing the vast amounts of destruction?

Noam Chomsky

You’re right about the framework. That’s the way it’s discussed. And it’s true that crazy war spending in general — $753 billion Pentagon budget — is, first of all, endangering us very much. It’s also taking away resources that are badly needed for other purposes. That’s apart from Afghanistan, but the point is correct.

Yes, we’re responsible for doing something to help Afghanistan escape from the wreckage for which we are substantially responsible. There are concrete things we could do. For example, we should be admitting Afghan refugees — and without bureaucratic hassles. They should be treated decently.

The second thing we should do is end this disgraceful program of putting sanctions on Afghanistan. I don’t like the Taliban. You don’t like them. But that’s no reason to punish Afghans. They need the humanitarian aid badly. It’s Afghan people who are starving — not the Taliban leaders. Sanctions in general punish the population and not their leadership. That was true of the sanctions on Iraq, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, too.

We know the actual reasons for sanctioning. They’re sometimes even announced. In the case of Cuba during the 1960s, the United States recognized that Castro was very popular. They thought that the only way to overthrow his government was by fomenting discontent. The idea was to make life so impossible that people would topple the government. Of course, it wasn’t the only way: John F. Kennedy also launched a major terrorist war, which practically brought the world to nuclear disaster in 1962.

Sanctions on Cuba intensified under Bill Clinton. When Cuba was in a desperate position after the Russians pulled out, Clinton outflanked George H. W. Bush from the right to increase the sanctions so as to starve the population and beat them into submission so they’ll overthrow the government. That’s exactly what’s going on now.

Incidentally, the United States is the only country that could impose such sanctions. These are third-party sanctions. Everyone has to obey them, or else they get tossed out of the international financial system. Only the United States has the capacity to do that, and it’s a major form of state terrorism. The case of Afghanistan is another one.

We should also unblock the International Monetary Fund and World Bank funding. Those institutions are blocking funding, of course, under US pressure. That should be stopped. We should make every possibility for the Taliban and the population to solve their own problems.

There were better solutions available in the late 1980s. For example, now everybody’s concerned with women’s rights. How wonderful and touching. What happened in the late 1980s when the Russians had their regime in place, the Najibullah regime, which was protecting women’s rights? Women were going to university and wearing whatever clothes they wanted.

They did have problems: the problems were the US-backed Islamic maniacs like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who were throwing acid in the faces of women with the wrong clothes. Very credible people wrote articles about this and sent them to US journals that wouldn’t publish them because it was a Russian-run regime.

Jennifer C. Pan

As you mentioned, when Biden announced the withdrawal of troops, there was suddenly this wave of media commentary talking about Afghan women and girls and what fate they might face under the Taliban. If there’s anything the last few decades have taught us, it’s that we should be suspicious of “humanitarian intervention.”

Meanwhile, a lot of progressives are invoking the Pottery Barn rule of “you break it, you buy it.” They don’t feel that it’s right for the United States to create this disaster in Afghanistan and then just pack up and leave. In light of all this commentary, I’m wondering if there are other humanitarian projects that you think progressives should be supporting — aside from ending sanctions and admitting more refugees — that don’t fall into this trap of continuing the intervention.

Noam Chomsky

I’m sure there are good people on the ground in Afghanistan who really are committed to human rights. But they’re not the policymakers.

The first step in humanitarian intervention is to stop destroying. If we can stop destroying, terrorizing, and using our muscle to intimidate everyone, that’ll be a big step forward.

If we get that far, then we can start thinking about doing things of value. Take George W. Bush, who was responsible for the invasion of Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq that followed later — millions of people killed, countries destroyed, the whole region wrecked through ethnic conflict that didn’t exist before.

But Bush did some good things. His health programs in Africa, for example, were quite helpful. That’s humanitarian intervention. We could carry out a humanitarian program right now by making vaccines available to Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia.

Biden has at least taken some small steps in that direction. But not the major steps called for by the People’s Vaccine movement, like freeing up patents from exorbitant intellectual property rights. Those rights not only patent the product but also the process. That’s something new introduced by Bill Clinton and other neoliberal fanatics in the World Trade Organization.

It’s a radical violation of free trade that never existed in the past. And it’s all in service of more profits for drug companies. Well, we can eliminate that and allow other countries to manufacture the vaccines, which were mostly created on public funding anyway.

Now let’s go to Cuba: one of the worst atrocities of the modern age. The whole world — literally — is strongly opposed to what we’re doing. The last vote at the United Nations was 184 to 2, in favor of the United States ending its economic blockade of Cuba. Israel was the only country that voted with the United States because it’s a client state. Nobody else did. Does that even get reported?

The blockade is about punishing Cuba for standing up to us — what the State Department, back in the ’60s, called “successful defiance.” The United States won’t let anybody get away with that, so they’ll make up all sorts of stories about human rights.

There are human rights abuses in Cuba — in fact, some of the worst in the hemisphere. They’re taking place in the southeast corner of Cuba in a place called Guantanamo Bay, which the United States took at gunpoint and refuses to give back. What happens at Guantanamo are maybe the worst human-rights violations in the hemisphere.

Let’s stop violating human rights viciously in places we’ve stolen from Cuba at gunpoint and maintained because it holds a major port. That’d be humanitarian intervention.

You can look around the world and find endless things like that. Actual humanitarian intervention? It barely exists.

It’s very hard to find an authentic case of humanitarian intervention. Of course, every action by a great power is called “humanitarian.” That’s universal. When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, it was to protect people from the wild terror of the Poles. If we had records from Attila the Hun, he’d probably be humanitarian.

Ariella Thornhill

You mention George W. Bush. He’s been rehabilitated in the eyes of the liberal establishment. Bush started out as evil incarnate, rushing us into two wars we had no business starting. Then he was turned into kind of a bumbling oaf who ran interference for Dick Cheney, the real mastermind behind the scenes. Now, Bush has become a sort of lovable figure — a folksy painter who is friends with Michelle Obama.

We’ve seen the media talking about how Biden botched the Afghanistan withdrawal. They’re saying he can’t recover from this. It could crush the Democrats’ chances in later elections. But Bush has escaped, it seems, any kind of blame for his role as a war criminal. Can you talk about how and why the media whitewashes its own recent history?

Noam Chomsky

What about Henry Kissinger? He’s honored despite being one of the worst war criminals in modern history.

In 1970, Kissinger loyally followed his master Richard Nixon and transmitted orders of a kind that I don’t think have ever appeared in the historical record. Orders to the American air force said, “Massive bombing campaign in Cambodia . . . Anything that flies against anything that moves.”

See if you can find an analog to that in the historical record — among the Nazis, among anyone. And it wasn’t just words. It led to a horrendous, horrific bombing campaign.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976. (Library of Congress)

Go to India. Henry Kissinger supported the Pakistani destruction of East Bengal. A huge number of people were killed. Maybe a million or more. And Kissinger threatened India with punishment if they dared to try to stop the slaughter.

What were the reasons? Kissinger had a planned photo op with Mao Zedong in China. They were going to meet, shake hands, and announce detente. But Kissinger had to go through Pakistan to get there. And all this slaughter was undermining his photo op.

What about Chile? Kissinger was the point man pressing hard for the overthrow of the Salvador Allende government. He did so on two tracks: one track was just violence — a military coup. Then there was a soft track: “make the economy scream.” Make it impossible for people to live. Well, they finally got what they wanted and, in 1973, instituted a vicious dictatorship, which, incidentally, was the first 9/11. What happened in 2001 was the second 9/11.

The first one was much worse, by any measure. Translated to per-capita terms, it would be as if our 9/11 had seen 30,000 people killed outright with another 500,000 tortured. A government was overthrown, a vicious dictatorship was instituted, and terror, torture, and horrors abounded.

And the United States celebrated. It poured funds in to help the new dictatorship. Various international agencies that had been withholding funds from Allende did the same. The neoliberals, who have been running the world for the past forty years, loved it. They moved in to advise the new government.

Friedrich Hayek, the moral leader of neoliberalism, visited and said he was impressed by the freedom under Augusto Pinochet and said he couldn’t find a single person in Chile who didn’t think there was more freedom under the Pinochet dictatorship than under Allende. Somehow he couldn’t hear the cries of anguish from Via Grimaldi and other torture chambers.

That was the reaction to the first 9/11. I’m sure there are jihadis who celebrated the second 9/11. We think they’re terrible, but we’re much worse. Did anybody talk about that on the anniversary of 9/11? The first 9/11 was much worse than what happened in September 2001.

If you want to know what we can do, we can begin by educating ourselves. Just take this notion of “forever wars” that’s being bandied about. Biden ended the forever wars. When did the forever wars start? 1783. That’s when the British pulled out. They had prevented the colonists from invading what was called “Indian Country”: the Indian Nations to the west of the Appalachian Mountains.

The British had blocked that expansion, and the colonists weren’t having it — certainly not people like George Washington, who was a major land speculator and desperately wanted to exterminate the Indians, who he vowed to make disappear. Immediately, the colonists launched murderous, brutal wars against the Indian Nations. Extermination, dispersal, treaties broken — I mean, every horror you can think of. They knew what they were doing.

The leading figure — the intellectual architect — of Manifest Destiny, John Quincy Adams, in his later years lamented the fate of the “hapless race . . . which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty.” That was long after his own major contributions to the process. And that was before the worst of it.

The crimes went on to California, where they were truly genocidal. There’s a famous diplomatic history of the United States by Thomas Bailey, who discusses this. He says it was defensive. He says that, after the colonists got their freedom, they turned to the task of “felling trees and Indians” and territorial expansion. They picked up half of Mexico in the process and robbed Hawaii from its natives.

The United States has been at war practically every year since it was founded. And there were victims. Why not ask them about the costs? Nobody will, I don’t think. We only seem to care about the forever wars that cost us too much.

There’s a good article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. It discusses the very serious cost of the War in Afghanistan to the United States. Trillions of dollars were spent. But what about the people who we’ve been exterminating, attacking, and destroying for 250 years, ever since the country was founded?

There’s an article in the New York Times by a nice person, Samuel Moyn, about how the United States is turning toward more humanitarian wars. He says they’re still terrible, but they’re more humanitarian than before. And he gives an example: George H. W. Bush’s invasion of Kuwait. He says it was much more humanitarian than earlier wars.

Was it? As Iraq’s peasant conscripts were retreating from Kuwait, the American army used bulldozers to shovel them into ditches and suffocate them so they couldn’t. The Air Force completely destroyed undefended infrastructure throughout Iraq. This was, incidentally, a war that also never had to be fought. There were plenty of options for diplomatic settlement. But the press refused to report them, and the US government just dismissed them.

The war could’ve been avoided. In fact, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was not all that different from the US invasion of Panama a couple months earlier. That’s gone from history.

Did you see it written about at the New York Times? No. The people who mentioned it were simply ridiculed and denounced as unpatriotic. Nothing’s changed. Same institutions, same doctrines, same beliefs.

Of course, the world is somewhat different. One difference is the population. To the extent that today’s wars are more humanitarian, that’s thanks to people like you. It’s coming from people on the ground. The country has become more civilized as a result of the activism of the 1960s. And there’s plenty of evidence for that, though it doesn’t get discussed. It’s not the right story.

Take the Central American wars. Horrible atrocities. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. There was torture, massacres — everything you can think of.

But there were things the United States couldn’t do. It couldn’t do what John F. Kennedy could do in South Vietnam twenty years earlier. They tried, but they couldn’t do it. There was simply too much opposition here.

When he came into office, Ronald Reagan tried to duplicate what Kennedy had done twenty years earlier. There was an immediate backlash from the population. They weren’t accepting that anymore.

What happened in Central America was something totally new in the entire history of imperialism. It was the first time ever that people in the aggressor country didn’t just protest but went to live with the victims. I visited churches in Middle America where people knew more about Central America than the academics, because they were working there.

It’s never happened. Nobody in France went to live in an Algerian village. Nobody in the United States went to live in a Vietnamese village. This was unheard of. And it changed what the US government can do. Articles by academics in professional journals didn’t do it; activists on the ground did. They can make a difference now, too. That’s what changes the world.

Jennifer C. Pan

You’ve been active in antiwar movements since Vietnam. When I think back to the antiwar movement that sprang up after Afghanistan, and particularly in the lead-up to Iraq, it didn’t stop or slow either war. But is there still something we can take away from the antiwar movement of that period?

Noam Chomsky

The first thing they should learn is how effective they were. The common view is that we failed. That’s not true.

We recently learned, from high-level German sources, that the Bush administration was planning to use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. But they couldn’t do that because the US population wouldn’t tolerate it.

The Iraq War also had something new in the history of imperialism. There were massive protests, which you participated in, before the war was officially launched. In fact, the war had been going on for a long time — back to Bill Clinton bombing Iraq in 1998 — but it was officially launched in March 2003.

The day before, my students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology demanded that class be canceled so that we could all participate in the mass demonstrations before the war was officially declared. That kind of thing has never happened in the history of imperialism.

While what happened in Iraq was bad enough, it could’ve been a lot worse. If Rumsfeld, Cheney, and the rest of them were unleashed, we don’t know what would’ve happened. But they were constrained by public opposition on the ground. That’s happened over and over. It doesn’t get written about, it’s the wrong story. But it’s a story we should recognize.

So I don’t think the antiwar movement was ineffective. I think it was very effective. It’s a real factor that led to the very limited reduction in violence, terror, destruction that we see. The lesson is: continue it harder.

Take the very serious threat of nuclear weapons, which mounted significantly under Donald Trump. So far, Biden is pursuing the same policies. Well, let’s look back. In the early 1980s, there were huge public demonstrations condemning the placement of short-distance missiles in West Germany. Those missiles could reach Moscow within ten minutes. There were similar protests against them in Europe, which were also enormous.

That had an effect. It led Reagan to accept Mikhail Gorbachev’s offers for establishing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. That was an enormous step toward peace. It reduced significantly threats that could’ve easily led to nuclear war.

As part of his general wrecking-ball approach, destroying everything with any value, Trump dismantled the treaty. Immediately after, on the anniversary of Hiroshima Day, he launched missiles that violate the treaty.

The demonstrations of the early ’80s put some kind of limit on this. That’s a lesson, too. They can take place now and help stop the race to disaster that’s underway.

Same with climate destruction. Pressure from the population — young people, mostly — has pressured Biden to formally endorse programs that aren’t too bad. They’re ultimately insufficient, but nonetheless much better than anything that appeared before.

On August 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report. It’s very grim and didn’t get anywhere near adequate coverage [in the United States]. That was on a Monday. What happened Wednesday? On Wednesday, Biden issued an appeal to OPEC — the oil cartel — to increase production because he wants gas prices to decline in the United States to improve his electoral prospects.

That’s why activism on the ground makes a difference. Sunrise Movement activists took over Nancy Pelosi’s office. They got support from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so they didn’t just get thrown out. That led to an actual resolution in Congress. It’s on the floor.

Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey have a resolution, which has a very sensible program that would deal effectively with the severe threat of environmental destruction. It’s a resolution, but you have to get beyond a resolution to a legislation. That’s going to take a lot of work.

Republicans, of course, will be 100 percent opposed. Their commitment at this point is to slavishly serve the corporate sector and shine Trump’s boots so that the crowds he has organized don’t go after them. That’s the Republican Party. It doesn’t matter what happens to the country or the world. They’re 100 percent opposed, and there can be no deviation.

Then there are a few Democrats who can block anything. We know who they are. Well, that means work.

Ariella Thornhill

What is left foreign policy? How do we advocate for left foreign policy? How do we keep clear-headed when we’re being plied with rosy promises from bad actors?

Noam Chomsky

Well, you publish articles in Jacobin, and you organize people to act on what they learn. There are no secrets. We know how to do it. It’s been done over and over. Every popular movement, every major cause that’s been won over the centuries, has been won by people who are working on the ground.

Take, say, the civil rights movement. Mention the civil rights movement, and the name that comes to mind is Martin Luther King, who was a great figure. He deserves it.

But I’m sure he would’ve been the first to say that he was riding on a wave that was created by people whose names nobody knows — activists who were riding freedom buses in Alabama, a black farmer who had the courage to enter a voting booth in a racist country, et cetera.

My old friend Howard Zinn put it pretty well once. He said that “what matters are the countless small deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the events of history.” I think that’s the point. We don’t even know the names of the people who’ve done the really significant and important work, just as we don’t know the names of the people overseas who are struggling for their rights courageously under horrible conditions.

We can help them in many ways. It’s been done in the past and can be done more in future. But we don’t have a lot of time now. The problems are much more urgent than they were in the past.

If we don’t take care of the climate problem in a couple of decades, we’ll pass tipping points. And Republicans are probably going to get back into power next year, or maybe in 2024. That means pure denialism.

I’ve talked about Biden. But at least the Democrats can be pressed. Actually, younger Republicans can, too. Among younger Republicans, there’s less of the cowardly, brutal dedication to massive destruction in the interest of private wealth. That’s the older part of the Republican leadership — the Lindsey Grahams. But younger people are somewhat different. They can be reached. They can make a difference.

Ariella Thornhill

We really owe you a huge debt of gratitude for everything, and for all of the unknown names and opinions you’ve brought into the public eye.

Noam Chomsky

Thank you very much.