(Write up of my original interview here)
I interviewed Noam Chomsky in October 2011, but it was not published for two months, because none of the newspapers, magazines and journals who usually print my work wanted to run it. This was despite the fact that several of them were initially very enthusiastic – at least, that is, until they saw it. In the end, having been rejected by all the major publications of the Western left, it was published by Al-Ahram Weekly, an Egyptian newspaper.
It was controversial because Chomsky is such a popular figure amongst the British and American left, and my article was critical of Chomsky’s position on Libya. One person even refused to believe that the interview was real, and accused me of having made the whole thing up! Some saw it as sectarian, dividing the anti-war movement by unnecessarily criticising one of its leading voices. But as a supporter of the war against Libya, at least in its initial phase, Chomsky could hardly be considered part of the anti-war movement at that moment. It seems pretty obvious to me that the real sectarians in the anti-imperialist and anti-war movements are those who support wars against anti-imperialist states, not those who criticize former anti-war activists for switching sides. Ironically, although many people expressed the sentiment that I was wrong to criticize Chomsky, he himself told me afterwards that he actually prefers ‘confrontational’ interviews like the one with me (although he said he was not used to having them from this side).
One criticism I took more seriously was that as a British citizen, my focus should be on exposing the devious role of British power in the world – not pointing fingers across the Atlantic as if British imperialism no longer exists, as so many in the British left are wont to do. I agree with that. But nevertheless, I do believe that, as a hero to so many in the British left, Chomsky’s positions helped also to facilitate elements of British public opinion behind a British war. Challenging his argument, I felt, was therefore an essential part of the process of challenging British imperialism as well.
Chomsky’s position on the war was that the initial ‘intervention’ was justified, but that it then morphed into something different ( which he termed a ‘second intervention’), which he did not support. This position still makes no sense to me. To offer an analogy: imagine a notorious, mass murdering robber coming to your house, armed to the teeth, asking if he can come in to read the gas meter. Chomsky’s argument seems to be that you should let him in, but if he deviates from his invented task and – as is rather more likely – instead starts to rob and murder, we should at that point build a mass movement to pressure him to stop it. My argument – and that of others who opposed NATO’s intervention – was that the door should be kept firmly shut to these proven criminals.
In fact, it was worse than this, because the initial intervention was not designed to check the gas meter but to destroy Libya’s air defence system (to create a ‘no-fly zone’). All those who supported this, therefore, helped to pave the way for what Chomsky calls the ‘second intervention’ that they opposed, by supporting the destruction of all possible defences against this ‘second intervention’. Further, by calling for the first intervention, they were also helping to build ideological support for the second.
As I put it in subsequent written correspondence with Chomsky:
“You have to admit that it is quite a complex position to argue simultaneously:
a) that the rebels are a progressive movement that should be supported,
b) that Gaddafi is a monster who should be overthrown,
c) that although the rebels are calling on NATO to overthrow that monster, we should focus on organising a huge movement to prevent NATO doing exactly that and
d) arguing all this at the exact moment we have just supported the resolution that was openly designed to facilitate what we are now opposing.”
This was not the first time that Chomsky had supported Western aggression against the third world. In the run up to the Iraq war in 1991, he was asked in an interview what he thought should be done against Iraq, given that he did not support bombing. His reply was: economic sanctions. In the event, both bombing and economic sanctions were imposed, with the latter being far more deadly, killing an estimated 1.5million people, including 500,000 children, and causing the resignation of 3 high ranking UN officials involved, who argued that the sanctions constituted a form of genocide. Once they were underway, Chomsky campaigned against these sanctions. But it is instructive to note that, just as with the case of Libya, at the crucial moment when public opinion was being prepared, he was calling for the very thing he later came to oppose.
This illustrates something interesting about Chomsky and other ‘radical liberals’ promoted in the mainstream media (albeit at the margins), that I had not fully comprehended before: they are tolerated precisely because their criticism is only vocal at moments when it is likely to be ineffective. The crucial moment in the war against Libya was during the run-up. This was the moment when everything was in the balance and criticism might have had some effect. Once it was underway, it would be much more difficult to stop it. Once it was underway, therefore, criticism was tolerated, because it was too late. This helps explain why people like Chomsky are able to hold impressive positions at prestigious American universities, and their views are even promoted, to an extent, through occasional interviews on mainstream TV channels. It is important for imperialism to allow, and even encourage, a certain level of criticism and dissent, because this allows it to pose as a respecter of pluralism and civil liberties. By tolerating those who criticize imperialist policies, but only at moments when that criticism is impotent, imperialism gets the best of both worlds.
Something else I later came to realize, reflecting on this interview, was that radical liberals like Chomsky are fundamentally not anti-imperialists. They object to some of the methods and policies of imperialism, but do not actually dispute the right of imperialist states to wage wars against third world peoples. They seem to believe that, in an imperfect world, only the imperialist states have the muscle to intervene, and that humanitarian interventions are sometimes necessary. Therefore we should call on those states to intervene, but hold them to account when they do so. This relates to another fundamental problem with Chomsky’s brand of ‘radical’ liberalism: the tendency to think the main problem facing the world is all these nasty third world dictators. The West itself is only seen as a problem inasmuch as it supports these nasty people. We are bad only because we support them. They are the real ‘bad guys’, and we (the West) are bad only because we sometimes tarnish our purity by association with them (or sometimes because we act like them). In reality, of course, this has the problem on its head – the ‘third world dictators’ that really cause problems do so precisely when they act as conduits for Western control and plunder: the real and fundamental problem facing the world. In other words, for Chomsky, imperialism itself is not the
main problem facing the world’s peoples, but a secondary problem. During the Cold War, when support for anti-communist strongmen was the West’s preferred method of maintaining global control (Suharto, Pinochet, Mobutu et al), this difference might almost have seemed academic. Radical liberals and anti-imperialists were largely on the same side, united in opposition to this ‘unholy alliance’. However, in the current climate – when it is not the propping up of strongmen, but the destruction of all independent third world states, which is the imperial order of the day – the difference is critical. For Chomsky, Western aggression against ‘dictators’ (a catch-all term covering any leader with significant authority in a strong, sovereign state) is to be supported – within certain legal limits of course, and always ‘held to account’.
This also explains Chomsky’s bizarre method of ‘opposing’ the war, when he eventually decided to do so. Rather than highlight those things about Gaddafi that the West objected to, such as his support for African unity and development, opposition to Western military involvement in Africa, ‘resource nationalism’ etc – and thus exposing the real reasons for the war – he tried to paint a picture of Gaddafi as being somehow ‘in bed with the West’. Presumably, in his mind, this would expose the warmongers, because it would show that they were as bad as Gaddafi. In reality, this approach merely served to confuse, demoralize, and ultimately weaken the anti-war movement, by obscuring the fundamental tension between the imperialist and anti-imperialist agendas that was the real driving force behind the conflict.
At the end of the day, of course, Chomsky is who he is: a radical liberal who believes imperialism can and should be reformed and ‘held to account’ rather than ended. We should not expect him to be anything else. Genuine anti-imperialists need to develop their own analysis of events, and ultimately their own political movement and leadership, and not rely on the ‘respectable’ opposition offered to us by the ruling class. This is the fundamental lesson I learnt from interviewing Noam Chomsky.