Noam Chomsky needs no introduction. He's MIT Institute Professor Emeritus of linguistics and a leading anti-war critic and voice for over 40 years for social equity and justice. He's also one of the world's most influential and widely cited intellectuals on the Left. Gilbert Achcar is a Lebanese-French academic, author, social activist, Middle East expert and professor of politics and international relations at the University of Paris. Their new book, Perilous Power, is based on 14 hours of dialogue between them over three days in January, 2006 and updated six months later in July in a separate Epilogue at the end. It covers US foreign policy in the most volatile and turbulent region in the world, the Middle East, and discusses the wars in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Afghanistan as well as such key issues as terrorism, fundamentalism, oil, democracy, possible war against Iran and much more. Chomsky and Achcar collaborated with Stephen Shalom, Professor of Political Science at William Paterson University acting as moderator to pose questions and keep the discussion on track.
The book is divided into five chapters. This review will cover each of them in enough detail to give the reader a good sense of their flavor and content.
Chapter One - Terrorism and Conspiracies
The underlying raison d'etre used to justify the post-9/11 Middle East and Central Asian wars is the so-called "war on terror" and claimed overall threat therefrom, and that's how the dialogue between the two authors begins with moderator Stephen Shalom asking them to define terrorism. Chomsky explained he's been writing about it since Ronald Reagan was elected and declared "war on international terrorism" using rhetoric like the "scourge of terrorism" and "the plague of the modern age." It was clear what the administration had in mind was its own planned Contra war of terrorism against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the one west of it against the FMLN opposition in El Salvador with US regional head of state terrorism John Negroponte (now US Director of National Intelligence in charge of "homeland" terrorism against the public) directing it all through his US Ambassador's office in Hondurus situated between the two conflict zones. The idea was to crush the outlier Nicaraguan government (that wouldn't play by US-imposed rules) and the opposition resistance to the fascist government in El Salvador to establish or solidify reliable right wing client dictators who always understand "who's boss."
Chomsky provides a useful definition of "terrorism" from the US Code. It's "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature....through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear." Chomsky then observes that by that standard the US is the world's leading terrorist state, but this is unacceptable to any US administration so all of them go by the undebated notion that terrorism excludes what "we" do to "them" and is only what only what "they" do to "us." What "we" do is always benign humanitarian intervention even when it's done through the barrel of a gun the way we're doing it in Iraq, Afghanistan and in partnership with Israel in Palestine and against the Lebanese. Condoleezza Rice's rhetoric explains this, without a touch of irony, as "democracy (being) messy."
Achcar expands the concept of terrorism to what the European Union (EU) has used since 2002 that includes "causing extensive destruction to a Government or public facility....a public place or private property likely to....result in major economic loss (or even) threatening to commit" such acts. He acknowledges this broader notion is a dangerous enlargement of the concept as it could include almost any act of civil disobedience a government wishes to label an act of terrorism.
The discussion then covers whether or not a credible terror threat exists, and Chomsky believes a serious one does unrelated to 9/11. He notes the comments of two former US Defense Secretaries who see the likelihood of a nuclear detonation on a US target in the next decade as greater than 50% while US intelligence thinks it's almost certain unless current US policy changes. Chomsky also mentions the possibility of other forms of terror attacks against us all stemming from the 1954 CIA notion of "blowback" that referred to the unintended consequences from US hostile acts abroad like overthrowing legitimate governments as it did against Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 ushering in the 25 year terror reign of the Shah. It finally led to the "blowback" 1979 revolution, and it causes similar examples of retaliation now evident in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Achcar agrees that terrorism is a reality and can also be homegrown like the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City first blamed on Muslim "terrorists" who even then were part of the anti-Muslim attitude in the country that became hysterical post-9/11.
The issue then is what's to be done about the threat, and that's a subject Chomsky has written and spoken about often - "reduce the reasons for it." In the case of the Middle East, stop attacking Muslim countries, and that will reduce "blowback" repercussions. Achcar goes further and says there's an economic aspect to the equation as well relating to the neoliberal globalization direction the West took since the Carter years. It's caused a steady erosion of the social fabric and safety net that's most apparent in the US that Achcar believes eventually "leads to forms of violent assertions of 'identity,' extremism or fanaticism, whether religious or political..." Chomsky agrees and cites projections of US intelligence agencies that the process of globalization "will be rocky, marked by chronic financial volatility and a widening economic divide." This will "foster political, ethnic, ideological and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it." The solution both authors agree on is "political justice, the rule of law, social justice (and) economic justice."
The crucial issue regarding the likelihood of a conspiracy relating to the 9/11 terror attack is then addressed which both authors dismiss out of hand and Chomsky says is "almost beyond comprehension" that the Bush administration was responsible for it. Despite considerable evidence that at the least it knew about it well in advance, he argues that the notion of administration involvement even indirectly doesn't hold water in his view. For one thing, he explains "A lot of people (had to be) involved in the planning" of this and for certain there would have been leaks. He also believes claims of administration involvement divert "attention from the real crimes" and threats from them that's "welcomed by the administration."
Achcar agrees but admits Washington did nothing to prevent the attack supporting the notion that administration officials wanted a terrorist attack they could exploit to their advantage. What happened on 9/11 served US imperial interests the same way Iraq's invasion of Kuwait did in 1990. The attack in 2001 was the "catastrophic and catalyzing event (of a) new Pearl Harbor" the neocon Project for the New American Century (PNAC) think tank said it needed at its formation in 1997 to advance the kind of radical transformation its members advocated. These are the same key people who took power in 2001, and based on their agenda since then, it's hard to dismiss their not being up to almost anything including complicitity in an attack on US soil. It's likely on the evening of 9/11 they were drinking champaign celebrating "their good fortune" in the White House.
A second conspiracy relates to the possible US role in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Achcar says there's no way to prove it even though the US did nothing to prevent it. Chomsky, on the other hand, believes it happened because Saddam Hussein simply "misinterpreted" the message he got from US Ambassador April Glaspie, and that the US was providing aid to him right up to the time of the invasion which it only would have done for an ally that wasn't planning to attack another ally. Achcar has another view stressing that if the US wanted the invasion as a pretext for the Gulf war that followed in January, 1991, the GHW Bush administration would have maintained normal relations with Saddam right to the end so as not to tip its hand.
There's good reason to suspect the US may have wanted it. The cold war had just ended, the US needed a new enemy to justify maintaining a high military budget to avoid the "peace dividend" spoken of then, it also needed a way to reestablish a US military presence in the region because of its immense oil reserves, and since 1975 this country wanted to "bury the Vietnam syndrome" to be free again to engage in military action abroad with public consent. The Gulf war was the gift Washington hawks hoped for. The relatively simple Operation Just Cause in December, 1989 to remove Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega because he forgot who really runs his country hadn't done it, so in Achcar's words: "If Saddam Hussein did not exist at the time, they would have had to invent him." Achcar also believes the US was concerned about Saddam's military power then. His history in the region proved he was an aggressor, and that worried his neighbors like Israel and the Saudis.
If there was a plan to entrap Saddam, he walked right into it. Chomsky has another view that Saddam only became a "bad guy" after he "broke the rules." A little leeway is always permissible, but "imperial management" works by establishing reliable client states run by leaders who know who's "the boss." Saddam broke the rules by his act of "disobedience" - the same "sin" Manuel Noriega committed that led to his undoing.
Chapter 2 - Fundamentalism
The discussion begins with the importance of fundamentalism as a source of unrest in the world. For Chomsky, its Islamic version is mainly a reaction to those forces. He explained for many years "there was strong secular nationalism all over the Arab and Muslim world." It was true in Egypt under Gamal Abdel-Nasser who was a secular nationalist, in Iraq over the past century, and in Iran for half a century until the CIA-instigated coup ousted Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953.
Achcar agrees and stresses the US assault against secular nationalist leaders led to the doctrine's failure in these countries and left a vacuum filled by Islamic fundamentalism based on the most reactionary brand of it practiced by the US's oldest client state in the region - Saudi Arabia. The US used the Saudis and its extremist model to counter communism and all forms of progressive movements. Achcar also points out that fundamentalist nongovernmental terrorism is miniscule compared to the state-sponsored kind practiced mainly by the US and Israel and is a direct outgrowth of those policies.
The US even supported the Taliban when it assumed power in 1996 believing their authoritarian rule would bring stability to the country without which planned pipelines from the landlocked Caspian Basin to warm water ports in the south would be in jeopardy. Unlike the propaganda used against them in 2001, their religious extremism, harsh treatment of women, and overall human rights abuses were of no concern at first despite any pious rhetoric about them to the contrary later on.
Chomsky then commented that the Reagan administration helped Pakistan move toward fundamentalism and even pretended it didn't know the country was developing nuclear weapons. It's now the only known Muslim country to have them. Israel also wanted to destroy the secular nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a move that led to the rise of Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist groups to challenge its supremacy. Israel followed the same strategy in Lebanon with its 1982 invasion and 18 year occupation of the country from which Hezbollah emerged as a resistance group that finally succeeded in forcing the Israelis to withdraw from the country in May, 2000 and humiliated the vaunted Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the summer, 2006 Lebanon war. More on that below. Achcar notes that in its zeal to destroy secular nationalism in the region, the US let the "genie out of the bottle" called Islamic fundamentalism it now can't control. It turned against both the US and Israel as a resistance force against oppression.
Chomsky also observes that fundamentalism isn't just a Muslim phenomenon. A powerful Christian strain of it exists in the US that has enormous influence over right wing Republican-led governments as it did during the Reagan years and especially now under George Bush who believes his agenda is a God-directed messianic mission. Achcar goes further stressing fundamentalism is a global phenomenon with strains of it in all the major religions - Judaism, Christianity (Protestant and Catholic), Hinduism, Islam and others with all of them having arisen over the last 25 years or so as a "remarkable....synchronized worldwide" phenomenon. It represents the only remaining ideological counterweight expression of mass resentment and resistance against the socially and economically destructive elements of predatory neoliberal capitalism now dominant in the West and throughout most of the world.
The discussion then turned to Saudi Arabia which Achcar describes as "the most fundamentalist Islamic state on earth" and the "most obscurantist, most reactionary, most oppressive of women" and yet so closely allied to the US under all administrations because of all that oil there - what US state department officials in 1945 described as "a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history (including the extended prize of what was available in the other regional oil-rich states)." Wealth and power always trump ideology, especially when a lot of oil is involved and a repressive ruling authority like the Saudi monarchy is willing to play ball with its US master. The two countries basically have a deal. The Saudis agree to pump whatever amount of oil Washington wants, help control its price and recycle the revenue from it in US markets and by buying our weapons. In return, the US acts as the "Lord Protector" of the kingdom exerting enormous control over it with little interest in how backward, extremist or repressive it is other than getting it to agree at times to some modest cosmetic changes only for show.
Next, the state of democracy in the region is discussed. Chomsky explains that over the last century there were democratic movements throughout the Middle East including in Iran and Iraq even though they weren't perfect (but neither is the US model, especially now when it's on life support at best). When the British or US controlled these states, it was another story. Both countries either opposed democracy (disingenuous rhetoric aside) or tried to prevent its development because elected leaders sometimes get the idea they have to serve the people who elected them. Authoritarian strongmen rulers under the US thumb have no such obligation. Today in Egypt the Kifaya movement is a democratic force wanting to end the dictatorship of one such man and close US ally Hosni Mubarak who's ruled the country since he succeeded Anwar Sadat in 1981. Mubarak goes through the ritual of holding elections like Saddam did, and like the deposed Iraqi dictator always manages to get about 99% of the vote in a miraculous and totally fictitious show of support.
Achcar picks up the discussion emphasizing the potential for democracy in the region mentioning the 1979 Iranian revolution ending the brutal reign of close US ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi. A major aspiration of the Iranians supporting his overthrow was democracy, but they were let down by Ayatollah Khomeini who promised it to them and then reneged once in power establishing an Islamic "Assembly of Experts" and extremist theocratic rule. Today, however, there's a limited amount of democracy in Iran with an elected president and parliament even though the unelected Supreme Leader and Guardian Council have the final say. Still Iran is an enlightened state enjoying freedoms unimaginable in a nation like Saudi Arabia where women aren't allowed to drive and there's a special police whipping people on the streets during times of prayer because they're not allowed out there then (even though these police should have the same state-imposed obligation to be inside praying). That's OK with the US because of that "greatest (of) material prizes" there and the Saudis never forgetting "who's boss." The Iranians, however, have been a prime US target for regime change for a quarter century, not for their ideology but because they prefer going their own way independent of "the boss's" authority.
Chomsky and Achcar both explain that a major deterrent to democracy, especially in the Middle East with its oil treasure, is because the US opposes it. With it, the "bad guys" might win, meaning forces hostile to western interests. The same is true in other regions where the US is willing to use force or stage so-called "demonstration elections" it can manipulate to be sure candidates it favors win as nearly always happens in Central America and key South American countries like Colombia and Peru. When "mistakes" happen and the "wrong" candidates are elected like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, or Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), they can expect harsh US-directed efforts against them (or Israeli ones in the OPT) to force their removal from office. The US has tried and failed three times to depose Chavez, and Israel now has the democratically elected Hamas government on its knees in the OPT, discussed further below.
The question then was raised whether an unintended consequence of the US invasion of Iraq has been an increase in democracy in the region. Not so far, but Chomsky explains it can happen as it did in Asia following the defeat of Japanese fascism. Their atrocities inspired a wave of democratic reform that included expelling the European (and US) imperialists as happened in Vietnam 20 years later. Chomsky imagines a generation from now the Iraq war may end up accomplishing the same thing in the Middle East, but Achcar stresses that's not, of course, what the US wants. For now, however, the US invasion of Iraq (and Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and Lebanese) has been a major destabilizing factor in the region and worlds away from showing any positive signs. Achcar notes that the "craziest of the (Bush) neocons" call it "creative instability" which is their nonsensical notion of "democracy" - the kind Secretary Rice calls "messy." He further notes the Bush administration has been "stupid" and "will go down in history....as the undertaker of US interests in the region." He might have added how equally destructive it's been to its stature worldwide, the state of democracy at home, and eventually for having been the prime mover for the decline and fall of the US empire along with its political and economic preeminence.
Chapter Three - Sources of US Foreign Policy in the Middle East
Moderator Stephen Shalom begins this discussion asking what are the dynamics driving US policy in the Middle East. For Chomsky and Achcar, the answer is clear:
Chomsky explains the centrality of oil in the Middle East saying without those immense hydrocarbon reserves in the region, no one in high places would care any more about it than Antarctica. It's been almost 100 years since oil was first discovered there in what was then Persia and now is Iran. It was then discovered near Kirkuk in northern Iraq in the late 1920s and in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Most importantly, it looked even then like the region had plenty of this essential commodity, and it was easily and cheaply accessible and easy to refine. In the 1930s before WW II, the Roosevelt administration knew the Saudi reserves alone were an immense prize, wanted it for the US, and saw to it US oil companies got a foothold in the country. Chomsky explains the US's obsession with oil isn't about access to its use. It's about controlling most of the world's supply as a "lever of world domination." One way to keep European and other countries dependent on us and in sync with our policies is to maintain control of the oil spigot they're reliant on.
No country, no matter how powerful, can get that control by occupying all the others it wishes to dominate. The US knows that and prefers having a control structure like the British used when it was the leading power in the region after WW I. It's essentially the way Iraq is nominally governed today under US tutelage - an "elected" puppet facade that can't do much more than blow its nose without US approval and the intention to withdraw most US forces once a local satrap army and police can take over, which is a very dubious hope at best.
Chomsky explains the US went beyond the British model adding another structural level of control called "peripheral states" - regional gendarmes or what the Nixon administration once called "local cops on the beat" with "police headquarters in Washington and a branch (precinct) office in London." That role is now filled by Turkey and Israel and was by Iran as well during its rule under the Shah.
Achcar agrees with Chomsky and stresses oil's strategic importance in solidifying alliances with key allies like Japan and checking rivals like China and Russia (which has its own large hydrocarbon reserves). It's economic value is also immense both to US Big Oil but also to the US economy. Those factors are now playing out on a worldwide chessboard with two organizations coalescing to compete with the US for control of Central Asia's reserves - the Asian Energy Security Grid composed of China and Russia mainly and possibly India, South Korea and even Japan joining and the more significant Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) formed in 2001 for political, diplomatic, economic and security reasons as a counterweight to NATO the US dominates. It has a core China-Russia alliance in it along with most of the former Soviet republics plus Iran, Pakistan and India as observers that may lead to their eventual membership. As world powers jockey with the US for control of vital oil reserves, these alliances may figure prominently in how things eventually play out.
Central to that discussion is the next crucial point Chomsky raises. It's the issue of US withdrawal from Iraq that's now more prominent in the news than when he made his comments. He asks what happens to the country's oil under this scenario and stresses it would be an "utter catastrophe" if the US didn't leave behind a reliable client state. It's what noted and longtime Middle East journalist Robert Fisk meant when he said: "The Americans must leave (Iraq), they will leave, but they can't leave."
The country has a Shiite majority closely allied with Shiite Iran as well as with the large Saudi Shiite population in the bordering area between the two countries where most of the kingdom's oil is located. Under this scenario, Chomsky imagines what he calls Washington's "worst nightmare" - most of the Middle East oil reserves outside of US control and possibly linked to either or both of the predominant China-Russia energy and security alliances. If it happens, the decision to invade Iraq will go into the history books as one of the world's greatest ever strategic blunders and the Bush neocons will get the "credit" for it. It could put the US on a fast track to becoming a "second-class power" and be a far more serious defeat than the one suffered in Vietnam. Are echoes of "Waterloo" becoming audible?
Israel and the Jewish Lobby
The power of the Jewish Lobby is more prominently discussed now (though not in the major media) than when this dialogue took place. It got resonance from the paper issued in the spring by two noted political scholars - John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government - who argued how dominant the Lobby is. That position has been echoed by other analysts and also by a powerful new book by noted scholar James Petras called The Power of Israel in the US reviewed by this writer and available on sjlendman.blogspot.com. With his extensive documentation in a full-length book, Petras makes a convincing case for his position about how dominant the Jewish Lobby is in determining US policy in the Middle East and that AIPAC is just one part of a much broader network.
Chomsky and Achcar disagree. Chomsky believes the most powerful pro-Israel lobby is "American liberal intellectuals," not AIPAC. The intensity of their support crystallized after Israel's dramatic victory in the 1967 six-day war. It happened when the US was bogged down and losing in Vietnam and for liberal hawks (who later became neocons) this was a model or example of how to crush a "Third World upstart." Achcar has a similar view and believes it's untrue to think the Israeli "tail" wags the US "dog." Chomsky adds: "Whatever you think of the (Jewish) Lobby, it is nothing compared with the power of the US government." Those who want the opposite view should read the Petras book just published which covers this issue in much greater detail including a critique of Chomsky's position in the final section.
Chapter Four - Wars in the "Greater Middle East"
The war in Afghanistan is discussed first, and Chomsky calls it "one of the most atrocious crimes in recent years" because it might have (but thankfully didn't) caused the starvation of five million Afghans with the potential number at risk raised to 7.5 million after the bombing started. Washington demanded all fuel supplies be cut off that disrupted desperately needed humanitarian aid. The 9/11 event was used as a launching platform for the foreign and domestic agenda that followed beginning with the Afghan war that was unjustifiable by any analysis. It's also known the war was planned well before that fateful September day and what happened on the 11th of the month was just a convenient pretext used opportunistically to launch step one with more war to follow in what's been euphemistically characterized as "the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the long war, WW III" and clash of civilizations meant to last generations pitting the West against the forces of "terrorism"....aka "Islamic fascists" wanting to establish a "global Caliphate" under Shari'a law.
Chomsky explains that what happened on 9/11 was a "major crime" but not a casus belli. It should have been dealt with like any other crime - "find out who the criminals were, then...apprehend them (and) bring them to justice." Bombing a country to rubble that had nothing to do with it was monstrous, but that's not the way it played out around the US in a flag-waving protect the homeland, crush the "bad guys" and support the troops frenzy.
Now five years later, Chomsky says Afghanistan is no "showcase" but believes it's much better off today than under the British during the years of the (first) 19th and early 20th century "Great Game" when famines ravaged millions in the country. But those reading John Pilger's comments in his new book Freedom Next Time would be struck by his dismal description of the country post-2001 as looking more like a "moonscape" than a functioning country. He describes the capital, Kabul, where there are "contours of rubble rather than streets, where people live in collapsed buildings, like earthquake victims waiting for rescue (with) no light or heat." There are desperate shortages of everything throughout the country that even now is putting hundreds of thousands at risk of starvation because of drought, inadequate services, no occupying power interest to help and the resumption of conflict.
Achar's view may be closer to Pilger's than Chomsky's based on indicators from human rights organizations on the ground and the condemning Senlis Council think tank report in mid-2006 that called Afghanistan today a humanitarian disaster and much more. The US also let a brutal and hated Northern Alliance proxy force topple the Taliban with help from its overwhelming air power. These thuggish murderers and rapists are no different today than when the Taliban ousted them from two-thirds of the country in 1996. Their return to power along with a hostile occupying force led by the US along with the desperate conditions in the country are the reasons for the resurgence of the Taliban that have now reclaimed most parts of the country in the south.
There's no central Afghan leadership to counter them, and Achcar characterizes nominal and caricature of a president Hamid Karzai (a former CIA asset and oil giant UNOCAL consultant) as a US stooge playing the role of president when, in fact, he's nothing more than the mayor of Kabul who might not last a day on his own without the protection afforded him by the private US security contractor DynCorp with the US military for backup.
Iraq after March, 2003
Both authors then address the reasons why the US invaded Iraq and agree the country and region's immense oil treasure are central to understanding Washington's thinking. It's believed Iraq's oil reserves are second only to those in Saudi Arabia and "they're extremely cheap and accessible." In Achcar's view, the US wants full control of both Iraqi and Saudi reserves as between the two countries they represent nearly two-fifths of the world's supply, and if Kuwait is added to them the ratio is close to one-half. The US also controls the smaller oil-producing Gulf monarchies leaving only Iran outside it's orbit and highlighting how strategically important the Persian state is.
Controlling Iraqi reserves was central in 1991 as well, but the only reason the US didn't proceed on to Baghdad and occupy the country then was because that would have been "unilaterally exceeding the United Nations' mandate" - something the GHW Bush administration apparently took seriously but likely never would have deterred the younger Bush neocons who don't even bother with UN authorization unless it's easily gotten.
In 1991, the US was also willing to settle for a neutered Saddam it could control and wasn't willing to risk having the country run by Shiites allied with Shiite Iran - something intolerable to any US administration. Washington also tried repeatedly throughout the 1990s to foment an insurrection it approved of that would do the housecleaning job for it. It wanted Saddam removed but only if he could be replaced with an acceptable hardliner clone who understood "who's boss." It never happened, and once the younger Bush administration came in, it decided on a full-scale invasion and occupation to clean house and control the country. It began in March, 2003, but things since haven't exactly gone as planned.
Achcar explained US proconsul Paul Bremer (who replaced the short-tenured retired General Jay Garner) wanted to put in place a US lock on the country - politically, economically and constitutionally - but ran up against unexpected resistance from Grand Shiite Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who wanted Saddam removed but would only accede to a US occupier willing to help the country and not just itself. He was able to curtail US plans enough to allow elections and have Iraqis write the constitution as imperfectly as the whole process played out because the US always has the final say. It showed as he wasn't able to stop Bremer from turning the nation into a free market Iraq, Inc. utopia mainly for predatory US corporations that have sucked the life out of the country and convinced the Iraqis people what anyone should have known in the first place. The US never has democracy and liberation on its mind. It was all about controlling the oil, stupid and establishing a client state.
The Iraqi people figured that out pretty quickly, and the resistance began at once and then intensified because of an insensitive turned hostile predatory occupation. Achcar attributes it only to the 20% Sunni segment of the population at the time of this dialogue (that still represents a healthy five million or more people). Chomsky believes the resistance is a genuine national movement that's very disparate but broadly supported by the Iraqi people who want an end to the occupation. Achcar agrees that there is a broad consensus in the country at least outside the Kurdish-controlled north for a firm timetable for withdrawal of all foreign troops.
Based on conditions now in the country, outside of the Kurdish-controlled north, it's hard to imagine there's not near unanimity favoring the earliest possible end to the occupation. Beginning in 1991, continuing throughout the 1990s and especially after March, 2003, the US conducted a scorched-earth campaign to destroy Iraqi society, its infrastructure, historical treasures and its very identity as a nation. The UN's International Leadership report showed it's done an effective job of it: 84% of Iraq's higher learning institutions have been burnt, looted or destroyed; archeological museums and historic sites, libraries and archives have been plundered; and targeted assassinations have been carried out against academics, other teachers, senior military personnel, journalists (Iraq is by far the most dangerous place on earth for the fourth estate) and other professionals including doctors forcing many thousands of them to flee the country for their lives even though they're desperately needed.
In addition, aside from the Iraqi resistance, there are random or targeted daily terror killings by US-directed "Salvador option" death squads, thousands of kidnappings and countless other examples of how intolerable life is for all Iraqis south of Iraqi Kurdistan and outside the four square kilometer fortress-like Green Zone HQ in central Baghdad for the so-called "coalition" officials and the puppet "Iraq interim government." This is the Bush administration's design to destroy the nation's cultural identity as an Arab state, take firm control of its oil resources, and likely divide the country into more easily governed parts the way it was done in the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It may prove a lot harder to make that sort of plan work in a country like Iraq and even trying it may end up backfiring by causing even greater turmoil.
Chomsky emphasizes that whether US forces leave Iraq or stay, it's crucial for Washington policy makers to establish a reliable client state government or the whole operation will have been a disaster, and it's already looking like it is no matter what happens going forward regardless of what will be presented and no doubt implemented by the Baker Commission Iraq Study Group (ISG). It's because the country is so devastated and the level of Sunni and Shiite anger against the occupation is so intense. Empire-building is a lot easier close to home, and Chomsky cites the example of US policy in Latin America. There, opposition resistance forces were brutally crushed and "legitimate governments" were installed and still are there today, except for the possibility of some change in Nicaragua after the reelection of Daniel Ortega on November 5. Chomsky notes what would seem to be obvious. It won't be easy to do in Iraq what was done south of our border because the country is not El Salvador, Nicaragua or any other banana republic.
Achcar agrees and emphasizes the US has a serious mess on its hands in Iraq. So far every strategy employed has failed, and today the situation worse than ever. The one thing yet to be tried is a coup d'etat, and that subject is now cropping up in the news. But it's hard to think pulling that stunt will end up doing anything more than inflaming an already out-of-control situation even more. Can anyone imagine replacing an inept elected puppet government with a US-imposed strongman being a good tactic to win public support. Chomsky agrees and believes Shiite soldiers won't take orders from a US-dominated command against their own people, and Kurds won't fight alongside Sunnis in a unified military command.
It's a classic example of the literal meaning of "snafu," and all because of an ill-conceived agenda from the start the administration was warned about in advance, told it wouldn't work, but still it went ahead with it anyway. The whole strategy was doomed from the start, and the only surprise was how quickly it collapsed. Chomsky again stresses the US wants to control the resources of the region, but because of what's happened in Iraq, how will it ever be able to do it. The echos of "Waterloo" are getting louder.
The serious question is then raised about whether a US withdrawal will lead to civil war. Who can say, but Achcar makes a crucial point: "the longer the occupation continues, the worse it gets." He also notes a hopeful sign as the most influential Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, says it will call on all armed groups to end their resistance once a timetable for withdrawal is announced. But it would have to be awfully convincing as all the promises made from the start of this operation have turned out to be nothing more than disingenuous rhetoric from a now thoroughly disliked and distrusted occupier. Why would anyone trust them now, especially with all the talk about possible new military action against Iran and Syria and a powerful multi-US carrier strike group force now in the region carrying out provocative exercises to back up the bluster - even if it's just saber-rattling bluff.
Achcar thinks it's very unlikely the US or Israel will attack Syria. He stresses both countries prefer the Assad regime, that has the situation under control, to any alternative that could become chaotic. If that happened, it would inflame the situation all the more in Iraq and maybe across other borders as well. As for Iran, Chomsky thinks things are more complicated. The country has all that oil the US desperately wants to control, and it's been a prime outlier since the 1979 revolution. "Imperial management" demands "obedience" and needs to punish all "transgressors" if only to set an example for others contemplating going the same way. That's how US policy makers think - about Iran, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and any other country ignoring "the boss." No country gets a pass, just a little leeway.
With that in mind, Chomsky, as of this dialogue, thinks it's unlikely the US will attack Iran because, unlike Iraq and other weak states, the country is not defenseless and the potential for serious Shiite resistance in Iraq alone is a deterrent. Achcar isn't so sure and feels the likelihood of a US assault is very possible but not by invasion which would be suicide, Iran being four times the size of Iraq in territory with three times its population. If it happens at all, we'll be hearing about "shock and awe" again as it's unimaginable it could be done any other way. And since the US now has a powerful naval attack force in the region practically daring the Iranians to respond, a possible scenario to watch for would be a manufactured incident on the order of the August, 1964 Tonkin Gulf one or the blowing up of the USS Maine in February, 1898 in Havana Harbor. We know what happened next. If the US wants another war, it's never hard finding an excuse to start it, but advance word coming out of the ISG is it's plan will need Iranian and Syrian cooperation to work, and that rules out any possibility of a US and/or Israeli attack against either country.
Chapter Five - The Israeli-Palestine Conflict
Few conflicts anywhere in the world are more intractable, longer running, or more of a mismatch than the Israeli-Palestinian one. The major issues involved are pretty clear-cut, but nearly six decades of trying to solve them have accomplished nothing because the Israelis, with full backing, funding and arming from the US (and the West), give nothing, and the Palestinians have no power to press their demands or allies who'll do it for them. The result is the chaotic state of devastation now in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) with no effort being made to alleviate it. It's been that way on and off for decades but intensified following Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem on September 28, 2000 instigating the al-Aqsa Intifada and has now become a brutal war of attrition following the June 25 Kerem Shalom crossing minor incident providing the pretext for Israel's long-planned merciless assault on the OPT still ongoing beneath the radar with no resolution of the conflict in sight or any serious effort being made to end it.
So many issues in the conflict need to be addressed, and one of them is to include in any discussed solution the rights of the Palestinian Diaspora. They live mainly in Jordan, Syria and in Lebanese and other dispersed refugee camps outside the OPT where conditions are deplorable. Achcar says all Palestinians everywhere have the same rights, and those in the camps "live in the worst misery....(they are) victims of oppression and...expulsion from their land and they have a right to self-determinaton....no one has the right to divide the Palestinian people." Unless these and all Palestinians are included in a settlement, it's a recipe for permanent war, and the way to do it is by "referendums of the concerned populations." This is democracy and the opposite of the sham Oslo agreement that was a diktat giving Israel what it wanted and the Palestinians nothing. Arafat, on his own dictatorial authority, got it through as his "get-out-Tunis-free-pass-and-return-ticket-to-the-OPT-plus-fringe-benefits-granted-for-his-surrender" even though the majority of the Palestinian Liberation Authority (PLO) Executive Committee members rejected the deal that should have arrived stillborn.
Chomsky believes any long-term solution should be a single unity federation with federated autonomous areas, or better still an Ottoman empire-style "no state" solution with the Palestinians having their own large degree of autonomy in their own territories, with a two-state settlement used as a first-step toward it. Achcar's preference is for the West Bank to be merged into a democratic, monarchy-free Jordan because the majority in that country is Palestinian and the West Bank was part of Jordan from 1949 until Israel seized it in the 1967 war. Achcar and Chomsky both agree that Palestinians living inside Israel, who are second-class citizens of the Jewish state, should either have the right of local autonomy in their concentrated areas or be able to join a Palestinian or Jordanian-Palestinian state.
The Peace Process
For decades, Israel and the US have been long on rhetoric and empty on pursuing any serious steps toward a just peace and equitable settlement for the Palestinian people totally at their mercy and receiving none. The two powers systematically ignored UN resolutions toward that end and also routinely ignore all international laws and norms interfering with the Jewish state's intent to do as it pleases.
Over the last half century, the US used its Security Council veto authority dozens of times preventing any resolutions from passing condemning Israel for its abusive or hostile actions or harmed its interests. It also voted against dozens of others overwhelmingly supported by the rest of the world in the UN General Assembly effectively using its veto power there as well. And it supported Israel's long and deplorable record of flagrantly ignoring over five dozen UN resolutions condemning or censuring it for its actions against the Palestinians or other Arab people, deploring it for committing them, or demanding, calling on or urging the Jewish state to end them. Israel never did or intends to up to the present, including the mass slaughter and devastation it inflicted on Lebanon in its five week summer blitzkrieg there and its ongoing daily killing-machine attacks against the Palestinians the IDF is allowed impunity to get away with.
The Israelis pursue their interests ruthlessly with full support from the US and the West. After the 1967 war, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 242 to end the belligerency between the warring states. It stressed "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and called for the "withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces from territory occupied in the recent conflict" and the right of each country "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries." It was an attempt to achieve "land for peace," but it failed because Israel drew its own interpretation and never withdrew from the territory it occupied as was called for.
Earlier in 1948, after the state of Israel was established, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 that affirms the right of refugees to return to their homes as codified in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." It also states in Article 15 that "everyone has the right to a nationality." Various Geneva Conventions also affirm these rights that clearly establish the absolute and universal "right of return" in international law. Israel's admittance as a UN member state through Resolution 273 was conditioned on its accepting and implementing Resolution 194 which ever since it refused to do. Under these conditions of joint US-Israeli intransigency more rigidly in place today than ever, how can there ever be a meaningful peace process. The latest so-called "road map" led nowhere even before Ariel Sharon ended any pretense of a peace process when he desecrated the Noble Sanctuary by his provocative September 28, 2000 visit.
Today the Bush administration gives Israel carte blanche approval to do whatever it pleases and funds it lavishly to do it. The Jewish state gets billions annually in direct aid, huge low or no-interest loans, state-of-the-art technology and the latest US weapons, and about anything else Israeli leaders ask for including going along with the most flagrant violations of all international laws and norms that include waging wars of aggression and ethnic cleansing to seize whatever Palestinian territory they wish for illegal settlement developments and the Annexation/Separation wall the International Criminal Court in the Hague (ICC) ruled unanimously against saying construction must end and affected Palestinians be compensated for their losses. Israel ignored the ruling, and so has the US and world community.
The dialogue on the Israel-Palestine conflict is so important it comprises nearly one-third of the book and is far too wide-ranging to cover in detail here. In addition to what's discussed above, it includes:
-- discussion on the legitimacy of Israel as a state.
-- efforts to achieve a lasting peace and how that process should be pursued.
-- the Palestinian view of a just settlement that ranged from the early-on view that Israel should be wiped off the map to the Oslo sellout surrender.
-- Israeli politics in the longtime dominant Likud and Labor parties as well as the breakaway Kadima party Ariel Sharon formed in November, 2005 before his disabling stroke and now run by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
-- Palestinian politics and the accession of Hamas to power in January, 2006 made possible by years institutionalized Arafat-led Fatah corruption and its surrender and subservience to Israeli authority.
-- ways people in the West can work for and support justice for the long-suffering Palestinians including a discussion of boycotts, divestment and other tactics to achieve it.
-- the myth of anti-Semitism and how Israel and its supporters exploit it.
-- anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia that's very real and that Chomsky calls the "last legitimate form of racism" although it's hard to ignore the vicious demonization of all immigrants of color, especially Muslims and Latinos entering the US illegally in desperate search of jobs to replace the ones NAFTA destroyed.
The above discussion took place in January, 2006 that was then supplemented with separate commentaries by each author in July.
Gilbert Achcar's July, 2006 comments
Achcar focuses first on the situation in Iraq at mid-year which has continued to deteriorate since his comments were made. Even then he stressed how "frightening" things had become. Aside from what he describes as political jockeying and "tugs-of-war" following the December, 2005 parliamentary election (which was more of a mirage than an election with the US running everything behind the scenes besides cleaning the streets after the daily dozens of car-bombings and killings), Achcar feels things hadn't yet reached the scale of a full-blown civil war. Instead he characterizes it as a "low-intensity" one. Holding something more serious at bay he feels is "the persistence of a unified Iraqi government (and) Iraqi armed forces" along with "foreign armed forces playing the role of deterrent and arbiter."
Achcar believes maintaining that status plays into the US plans for "Divide and Rule", and many Iraqis (rightly) believe the US (and maybe Israeli) operatives (in the form of "Salvador option" death squads) are behind some of the worst supposedly "sectarian" attacks like the one in February, 2006 destroying the golden dome and causing heavy damage at the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra that's one of Shi'a Islam's holiest sites. Achcar also believes if this is, in fact, the US strategy, Washington is "playing with fire" because dividing Iraq into three parts is a "recipe for a protracted civil war" in his view. It would also jeopardize US control over the bulk of Iraq's oil that's located in the Shiite-majority south of the country. Achcar thinks Washington's best interest is to allow a low-intensity conflict to continue and try to establish a "federal Iraq, with a loose central government (with the US behind the scenes in charge)."
Finally, Achcar compares the US forces to a "firefighting force" saying the occupation by its actions is throwing fuel on an Iraqi fire, and the only solution is announcing a total and unconditional withdrawal. The Association of Muslim Scholars pledged to call for an end to the resistance as soon as a timetable for withdrawal is established. So far, the Bush administration overtly refuses to consider it saying (without the "stay the course" and "cut and run" rhetoric) it will only leave when the country is stabilized which is impossible as long as US forces are there - a sure-fire formula for a high-intensity worst-case scenario "snafu." That obstinacy may be softening, however, since the formation of the ISG that's expected to propose an alternative agenda going forward soon to be made public.
Hamas in Power
Achcar explains that Palestinians voted for a Hamas-led government because of what was pointed out above - the failure of years of institutionalized corruption under Fatah rule and the abdication of its responsibility to its own people, opting instead to be little more than Israeli enforcers in the OPT. Their election, however, was not the outcome Israel or the US wanted, and the Palestinians have paid dearly ever since for their electoral "error." Hamas is now Israel's public enemy number one in the OPT, but ironically relations between the two weren't always hostile. Despite Hamas' adherence to Islamic fundamentalism and a strategy of retaliatory suicide attacks in the 1990s, Israel lent the organization (known as the Islamic Resistance Movement) support in the 1980s to check the growing authority and legitimacy of the PLO then that had suspended its own retaliatory attacks in favor of a political solution Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir explained he would never agree to.
Today, Israel has an Olmert-led government, but the overall strategy hasn't changed. Israel won't accept a political solution or a Hamas-led PA it can't control. The New York Times reported that right after the January election, US and Israeli officials met at the "highest level" to plan the destruction of Hamas by "starving" the PA and making the people in the OPT pay the highest price. It erupted full-force after the minor June 25 Kerem Shalom crossing incident and has been ongoing mercilessly below the radar ever since. The result is a current state of mass-immiseration of the Palestinian people and the virtual destruction of a viable Hamas-led PA with the full support of the US and the West. Achcar now believes "prospects for peace in the region are at their bleakest, for the present, and only further descent into barbarism looms on the horizon." Since his July comments, things have continued to worsen, and the situation today in the OPT is at its lowest ebb.
The Israel-Hezbollah-Lebanon Conflict
Hezbollah emerged out of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and oppressive occupation that followed. It was formed to resist the occupation, expel the Israelis (which it finally did in May, 2000), and it remained an effective opposition force ever since. It's also an important political force and is represented by 11 lawmakers in the Lebanese Parliament (notwithstanding the recent resignations that may be temporary) and has two government ministers in the country's cabinet. But it also maintains a military wing as a needed deterrent to Israeli oppression (and its summer, 2006 aggression) and represents the only effective force against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the region.
That military wing proved more than the IDF bargained for after Israel launched its five week summer blitzkrieg against Lebanon, planned months or years in advance, that it initiated in response to Hezbollah's minor cross-border incursion on July 12 that may, in fact, have happened inside Lebanon. Israel's response was swift and disproportionate, as it was in the OPT. It acted to neutralize Hezbollah as a political entity and as an effective resistance force against Israel's imperial designs on the country. It also wanted to destroy Lebanon as a functioning country, ethnically cleanse the southern part of it up to the Litani River, and annex the territory it's long coveted for its value as a source of fresh water as it did the Golan in the 1967 war.
But things didn't go quite as the US and Israelis planned. Hezbollah's resistance proved formidable even in the face of an IDF "shock and awe" reign of terror against the country that left it a devastated near-wasteland. The Israelis failed to accomplish their objective and were forced to withdraw. The country is now monitored by so-called (Israeli-approved and friendly) UN Blue Helmets and Lebanese Armed Forces replacing the IDF on the ground under a fragile UN-brokered ceasefire arrangement that could end any time Israel again wishes to unleash its war machine on whatever pretext it chooses.
Achcar explains that Israel's aggression against Lebanon and the OPT "bodes ill for the future of the region....(and) feeds various kinds of fanaticism that inevitably backfire on the perpetrators and their own countries (as it did in New York and Washington in 2001, Madrid in 2004 and London, 2005)." He also blames the US for its failure of responsibility. Unless Washington changes its Middle East policy, stops its own aggression in the region, and ends its support and funding of its Israeli imperial partner there will be no end to the current "decent into barbarism and the spiral of violence and death that affect the region and spill over into the rest of the world."
Noam Chomsky's July, 2006 comments
The Israel Lobby
Chomsky commented on the spring, 2006 Mearsheimer and Walt paper on the power of the Jewish Lobby on US foreign policy but wasn't able to address the powerful case James Petras made for it in his important and penetrating new book on the subject just out that discussed it in much greater depth. Maybe in a second printing hopefully as Petras devoted the final part of his book challenging Chomsky's view on the Lobby's power, listing what he calls Chomsky's eight "dubious propositions" and following that with what he calls Chomsky's "15 erroneous theses." Petras said he did it because of Chomsky's enormous stature making whatever his views are on any issue stand out prominently. On the issue of the power of the Jewish Lobby, Chomsky and Petras have strongly opposing views, and it would be a valuable exercise for both these noted scholars to have a point-counterpoint interchange.
Chomsky acknowledges that Mearsheimer and Walt produced a serious piece of work that "merits attention." He doesn't doubt "there is a significant Israel lobby" but believes Mearsheimer and Walt (and others) "ignore what may be its most important component." He stresses the importance of "concentrated economic power" as always being the prime determinant of US policy.
The US and Iran
Chomsky updates his assessment of the prospects of a US attack against Iran indicating evidence is accumulating that there's broad opposition to it that includes the "international community" that he says is technical language for a powerful Washington clique (including those on the ISG) and those joining with it like Tony Blair and the French. He also indicates what limited information is available suggests the Pentagon and intelligence services also oppose hostilities. Still, he and others know that once high-level administration neocons make up their mind, they regard opposing views as almost treasonous and often ignore the best of advice to pursue their most extreme imperial aims. There are mixed signs on Washington's possible intentions toward Iran, and for now no one can say for sure what will happen.
For many years, Iran has tried to normalize relations with the US to no avail. It began in the 1980s, and Chomsky explains that in 2003 President Khatami, with support from "supreme leader" Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, sent the Bush administration a detailed proposal to do it through a Swiss diplomat who was rebuked for having delivered it. The "supreme leader" stresses his country poses no threat to any other, including Israel, and that developing nuclear weapons is contrary to Islam even though Iran has every legal right to develop its commercial nuclear program which it intends to do unobstructed. Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is in full compliance with it based on years of monitoring of its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Israel, on the other hand, never signed the treaty, is known to have 200 - 300 or more nuclear weapons and sophisticated delivery systems for them, has implied its intention to use them if it chooses, and is a nuclear outlaw - but one with an important ally the Iranians lack.
At this stage, Chomsky believes the US is virtually alone in considering an attack against Iran and refuses to engage in any serious negotiations to prevent one. He still doubts there will be one and thinks instead Washington will opt for an agenda of "economic strangulation and subversion, possibly (coupled with) support for secessionist movements they can 'defend' by bombing Iran." The way the US goes about bombing other than a little softening up, any such campaign against Iran likely would be on the order of the March, 2003 one against Iraq and Israel's summer blitzkrieg against Lebanon - although it might not last as long. Still, Chomsky made these comments before he knew what would likely come out of the ISG, and that points to no further conflict in the region and more reliance on diplomacy including with Iran.
Still, back in July, two key considerations stood out that still can't be ignored. For at least a decade, Israel has pushed the US to attack Iran, and in recent years its political and military leaders have declared their intention to do it in the immediate future either alone or in partnership with the Bush administration. Secondly, as Chomsky observes in his writings and in this dialogue, US "imperial management" demands "obedience" and recognition of "who's boss." Those choosing an independent course can generally expect a healthy dose of Washington-directed regime change policy that won't end until the mission is accomplished even if it takes decades. So while the ISG proposal may table any hostilities against Iran for now, once Iraq is stabilized, if it ever is while US forces occupy the country, Iranian help may no longer be needed and the country may again be elevated to target status. For now though, that's all just speculation.
Saddam learned about Washington-think the hard way, and the US has been directing it at Hugo Chavez in Venezuela for 8 years, the mullahs and new President Ahmadinejad in Iran for nearly three decades and Fidel Castro in Cuba for almost a half century. Hegemons are like elephants. They never forget and never forgive. These countries and all others choosing to serve the interests of their own people above those of the "lord and master of the universe" will always face the "almighty's" wrath in the form of regime change efforts sooner or later to bring them into line by whatever means it takes to get the job done. That's how rogue hegemons operate.
It may now just be saber-rattling bluff and bluster that the corporate media has intensified a growing level of WMD-type reporting about the Iranian nuclear threat and a powerful US carrier multi-strike group force happens to have converged in the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean. A failing administration needs a steady drumbeat of media-led terror threat hysteria, and it's rather nice to stage it in that part of the world this time of year. It may just be intimidation that for many months the US has been flying unmanned aerials drones over Iran picking out targets and has had as many as 1,000 covert operatives in the country doing the same thing with 400 or more sites already apparently chosen. Famed musician Duke Ellington once explained: "it don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing," and so far, "the fat lady" has done little more than clear her throat. No political analyst knows for sure what the Washington neocons have in mind when even those with final say may still be undecided. They already have an uncontrollable situation on their hands in Iraq, they have to consider what comes out of the ISG, and they may be unwilling to risk making a bad