By: Maha Zaraket, Al Akhbar (Beirut) – 16 June 2013
American author and professor Noam Chomsky was in Beirut to give a commencement speech and accept an honorary degree at the American University of Beirut. Al-Akhbar interviewed this critic of American imperialism about the ongoing conflict in Syria, Edward Snowden, and what is left of the “Arab Spring.”
Maha Zaraket: What is the title of your [commencement] speech?
Noam Chomsky: I do not remember if it has a title, but it is going to be some comments on legitimacy of borders and states and possibilities of eroding them.
MZ: Do you think the Middle East is going through a rewrite of Sykes-Picot agreement?
NC: I think the Sykes-Picot agreement is falling apart, which is an interesting phenomenon. That is a century. But, the Sykes-Picot agreement was just an imperial imposition that has no legitimacy; there is no reason for any of these borders – except the interests of the imperial powers.It is the same all over the world. it is hard to find a single border that has any justification, including the US-Mexico border and the US-Canada border. You look around the world, just about every conflict that is going on results from the imposition of imperial borders that have nothing to do with the population.
I think as far as Sykes-Picot is concerned, it is beginning to erode. Whatever happens in Syria – it’s hard to imagine – but if anything survives, parts of Syria will be separated. The Kurdish areas are almost autonomous now and they are beginning to link up with the almost-autonomous parts of Northern Iraq Kurdish areas, and may spill over to some extent to southeastern Turkey. What will happen in the rest of the country is hard to say.
MZ: Do you think the new borders will be made by the local population? Or new imperialisms?
NC: I wish that were true, but that is not how the world works. Maybe someday, but not yet, not today.
MZ: What do you think of the Hezbollah intervention in Syria?
NC: They are in a very difficult position. If the rebels win in Syria, they become very exposed. That may mean their demise. There is reason behind it, I am not sure this is the right one, you could argue about it, but it is understandable.
MZ: Are you going to meet Nasrallah this time?
NC: No, I do not know if it is possible. But it is deeply in mind. It is difficult.
MZ: If you meet him again, what would you tell him?
NC: I would like to meet him, but just to find out more about their thinking and their plans. They are not coming to me for advice. You know.
MZ: You called for support of the Turkish protesters. How do you see the uprising in Turkey?
NC: I think the [Taksim demonstrators] are doing a great thing. I think it is extremely important. Of global importance. The initial reaction of the Erdogan regime was pretty similar to Mubarak and Assad: harsh brutal response to a legitimate set of demands.
As of this morning, the latest news, which may or may not turn out to be correct, there does seem to be some prospect of a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The news that was leaked by the representatives of the demonstrators, the Taksim negotiators, was that Erdogan has agreed to wait for a court decision on the Gezi park construction, and if the court authorized it, to have a referendum in Istanbul, which is quite different from a national referendum. I think these are good steps forward if they can be implemented.
MZ: Is it possible to link what is going on in Turkey to what been going on in Syria for the last two years?
NC: I think what is going on in Turkey is part of a general uprising throughout the world to harsh and autocratic economic and social policies that have been imposed everywhere for the past generation. And there have been reactions all over. Some of the reactions have been quite successful.
The most successful was Latin America. Latin America, for the first time in 500 years – it is not small, it has freed itself pretty much from Western domination, mostly US domination in the last century. That is a star development.
I think the Arab Spring was part of the same uprising. It is taking place in Europe, within Europe, in the peripheral countries, in Greece, Spain, and France, to an extent. Significant popular movements rising against the really brutal austerity policies, which are driving Europe not to suicide, but to disaster.
Europe is rich. It is not Syria, so it is not going to be suicide. But, essentially the policies are aimed in the direction of…dismantl[ing] the welfare state, which is one of Europe’s contribution to modern civilization.
MZ: Do you have any comments on the Edward Snowden Case?
NC: First of all, I think he has carried out a heroic act. That is the proper act of a citizen to let people know what their government is doing. For the most part, the public should know what their representatives are doing. Of course, governments never want that. They want to operate in secret.
I have spent a lot of time looking through the classified documents in the US, which is maybe the freest society, most of the documents are classified to protect the government against its own population and not for security reasons. I think anyone who tries to lift the veil on this is doing the right thing. In fact, the programs that the government was carrying out are really illegitimate and it was correct to expose them. I think he is going to suffer for it. You know. But it was the right thing to do.
MZ: After 9/11, the Americans asked, “Why does the rest of the world hate us?” Is it possible for us to ask, why do the Americans hate us?
NC: I think it is kind of interesting…because the question was asked a long time ago in 1958 when then-President Eisenhower asked his staff why is there a campaign of hatred against us in the Arab world, and not from the governments which are supportive, but from the population.
That same year, 1958, the National Security Council, the main planning body, came out with a document – it has been in the public domain for four years – in which they explained, they said that there is a perception in the Arab world that the US supports dictatorships and blocks democracy, and that we do it because we want to maintain control of their resources, their energy supplies. [The document said] this is what we ought to be doing, even though there will be a campaign of hatred against us.
That was 1958, and if you think of that year, that was right after Eisenhower had forced Britain, France, and Israel out of Egypt, so you might expect that there would not be a campaign of hatred, but there was. And those were the perceived reasons and pretty much the right ones.
After 9/11 George W. Bush, raised the question, why do they hate us? They hate our freedom and so on. The Pentagon Research Bureau did come out with a study, and their conclusions were the same as the National Security Council in 1958.
MZ: The second question: Why do they hate us? Why do the Americans hate us?
NC: Why the Americans …? They don’t. Why the American population? The American population does not have any idea about them.
MZ: American policymakers?
NC: For the reasons that the National Security Council discussed. You have to block democracy and support dictatorships in order to control their resources. And the Middle East is not different from anywhere else. Why did they support Suharto in Indonesia? Same reasons.MZ: What do you think of Israel?
NC: Israel made a really fateful decision in 1971. In 1971, Israel was offered a full peace treaty by Egypt, nothing for the Palestinians, just full peace, full security, for the withdrawal from the Egyptian Sinai. Since then, it has been the same policy [of] expansion over security, but it is not unusual to do that. That is what states usually do, they are not concerned pretty much with security, but rather power. And that’s Israel’s choice. It can continue because the US supports it. If the US stops supporting it, it could not continue.
Israel is making extremely threatening remarks right now about Lebanon. I am not sure if you have been following it. But it is kind of in the background. They are not coming out with big public statements, but if you read the statements from people in intelligence, the military, and government, what they are saying publicly is that they are not going to allow weapons to go to Hezbollah, but what they say furthermore, is that they’ve learned the lessons of the last war, and they are not going to make those mistakes again. The next time, the war will be over in days, which means that they are going to wipe Lebanon out.
MZ: You don’t think the US will do anything to stop it at a certain level?
NC: Not under Obama. He’s the first US president who has imposed no restrictions on Israel. Every other president, at various times, imposed limits that Israel could not go beyond, like Reagan for example. Reagan supported the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but in mid-August he ordered Israel to stop it because it was becoming harmful to US interests.
MZ: Would you link Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian revolution with Israel?
NC: These are separate. First of all, Israel was not opposed to Assad. He has been more or less the kind of dictator they wanted. He has done the kind of things they wanted. The US has no opposition to Assad. He was cooperating on intelligence and they did not like everything, but he was pretty satisfactory.
In fact, if Israel and the US really did want to undermine the Assad regime and to support the rebels, they have very straightforward ways to do it without arms. Israel could considerably mobilize forces in the Golan Heights. If they mobilize forces in the north, the Syrians are compelled to respond by mobilizing forces. But they do not do it, which can only mean they do not want the regime to fall.
MZ: Would you call the Arab Spring, the “Arab Spring,” or would you give it another name?
NC: I think it was a good name. But now it is – I do not know if it is an Arab Winter, but at least an Arab Autumn. I suspect there will another spring…I do not think that is a stable situation, probably more of the same. It seems to me a continuing process, and as I said, it is going on all over the world in different forms.
MZ: Are you still optimistic?
NC: You do not really have a choice. Objectively, we will probably all be under water in another generation or two, so not that it all matters, but there are certain possibilities for hope and progress.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus at the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is the author of numerous best-selling political works, including recently Hopes and Prospects and Making the Future. Noam Chomsky is also a member of the IOA Advisory Board.