Noam Chomsky - 'Illegitimate Authority: Facing the Challenges of Our Time'
Chomsky talks about the most current pressing matters currently on Earth, mainly the climate catastrophe and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Noam Chomsky has written many books on the Middle East. In recent times, due to U.S. attempts at hegemony, he has focused on middle–eastern areas where some of most dire atrocities have taken place or been concocted: Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen.
Vijay Prashad has reported on world politics and American international transgressions, perhaps at his most prescient in American Bullets.
When these two thinkers, in late 2021, came together to talk about a few of the countries that have, in recent decades, perhaps suffered the most at the mercenary hands of the United States, they also discuss the inherent fragility of international American power, because of how it all holds together. The American military style of invasion/occupation/evasion is all too familiar.
The introduction starts with Afghanistan. $9.5 billion USD that belong to Afghans are seized by the United States to pay off the families of the 9/11 attack, which is a ludicrous act that is in violation of international law. Meanwhile, Afghans boil grass to eat and sell body parts to get money, and it is estimated that 97% of the population will fall below the poverty line, millions of people pushed to starvation. This after ‘twenty years of battering the country to dust’, as Chomsky puts it.
The book is clear in stating its points:
In recent years, the United States has failed to accomplish any of the objectives of its wars. The United States entered Afghanistan with horrendous bombing and a lawless campaign of extraordinary rendition in October 2001 with the objective of ejecting the Taliban from the country; now, twenty years later, the Taliban is back. In 2003, two years after the United States unleashed a war in Afghanistan, it opened an illegal war against Iraq, which ultimately resulted in the start of an unconditional withdrawal by the United States in 2011 after the refusal of the Iraqi parliament to allow U.S. troops extralegal protections. As the United States withdrew from Iraq, it opened a terrible war against Libya in 2011, where—as discussed later—France was in the lead, Britain behind, and then the United States eventually took over. This war resulted in the creation of chaos in the region.
Not one of these wars—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya—resulted in the creation of a pro-U.S. government. Each of these wars created needless suffering for the civilian populations. Millions of people had their lives disrupted, while hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. What faith in humanity can now be expected from a young person in Jalalabad or in Sirte? Will they now turn inward, fearing that any possibility of change has been stolen from them by the barbaric wars inflicted upon them and other residents of their countries?
The authors go back in time to contextualise the mafia–like quality in how the United States have exercised their power.
[This is] something that goes back to the days of the genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America, who tried to negotiate with the settlers but faced instead the Hotchkiss gun. When Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee tried to negotiate with Indiana governor William Henry Harrison in 1811, the United States government used military force to chase Tecumseh to Canada; Harrison became the president of the United States, winning a reward for seizing the land. This attitude is rooted in a settler–colonial culture that expanded the initial Atlantic seaboard–based United States into the territory of Native American societies, seizing a third of Mexico, and then French and Russian territories in the Gulf Coast and California. Once the territorial United States had been established, all by the gun, the armies gathered to seize far-off archipelagoes and islands (Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, Philippines) as well as to establish dominion through the 1823 Monroe Doctrine of the American hemisphere. During the U.S. war on the Philippines in 1898, General Jacob Smith ordered his troops to “kill everyone over the age of ten” and create a “howling wilderness.” A half-century later, in Vietnam, a U.S. helicopter team painted the slogan “Death is our Business and Business is Good” on the side of their quarters. The landscape had to be pacified, or else destroyed. The ethos here was defined by Lyndon B. Johnson, the U.S. president, who said, “It’s silly talking about how many years we will spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.” The idea that the United States—a city on the hill (a phrase from the Bible used by John Winthrop in 1630 to describe his new country as a “beacon of hope” for the world)—had a right to define the destiny of the Americas and to export this attitude to other lands, especially in parts of Africa and Asia, derives from its settler–colonial history.
The idea of American exceptionalism rose from the deeply nationalist and racist assumption that America was better than other countries, thanks to divinity. NSC 68 progressed these ideals through the Cold War, along with the comfortable mystic basic assumption that there was no way the brutes would ever catch up with the U.S.
Today, the world is different. In spite of having American military bases along its entire coast, China is doing very well, economically speaking. Poorer countries prefer to borrow from Chinese banks than American ones, and the Belt and Road Initiative since long has challenged the International Monetary Fund. This points to how American fragility is inherent in their actions; China and Russia are working more closely together than ever before in terms of trade.
Prashad at one time asks Chomsky to comment on his courage. Chomsky’s answer:
You can’t raise the question of courage about people as privileged as I am. You want to look at courage, go to the peasants fighting for their lives in southern Colombia, or the courage of the Kurds in eastern Turkey, or the Palestinians in the refugee camps and in the occupied territories. Places where you—as a journalist—have spent most of your life. There, you can talk about courage. Not for people like me.
They detail things of which most Americans have no idea, for example:
VIJAY: The United States conducted a “secret” bombing campaign against Laos from 1964 to 1973 to support the Royal Lao regime against the Pathet Lao and to prevent the alleged use of Laos by the Vietnamese to resupply lines in the south of Vietnam. The United States conducted 580,000 bombing missions, dropping a full payload of bombs every eight minutes around the clock for nine years. The country is considered the most bombed on the planet. You traveled in Laos with Fred Branfman, who directed Project Air War and lived in Laos. Branfman, you recalled, “had been trying desperately to get somebody to pay attention to what was going on.”
NOAM: I was able to spend several days visiting refugee camps about thirty kilometers or so away from Vientiane, and also to meet many people I would never have been able to locate on my own. All of which I wrote about, though sometimes protecting the identity of people in severe danger. It was the right time to be there. The CIA mercenary army had shortly before cleared out tens of thousands of people from northern Laos—from the Plain of Jars—where many of them had been living in caves for years, subjected to what was, at that time, the most intensive bombing in history, soon to be surpassed in Cambodia. I spent a lot of time interviewing these refugees, which was revealing. One of the other interesting things I did on this trip related to the story of the time that claimed North Vietnam had fifty thousand troops in Laos and that’s why the United States had to bomb. I was interested in the sources and did what seemed to be the obvious thing: I went to the American embassy and asked to speak to the political officer—typically, the CIA representative at the embassy. He came down and was very friendly, and I asked him if I could see some of the background material on the reported fifty thousand troops. He took me up to a room and gave me piles of documentation. He also said that I was the first person to ever ask him for background, which was interesting. I read through it, and I found that there was evidence that there was one Vietnamese battalion of maybe 2,500 people somewhere up in northern Laos, and the rest of the so-called 50,000 were either invented or were old men carrying a bag of rice on their back trying to make it through the bombing. This information was astonishing, because at this time the United States was already using a forward base in northern Laos to guide the bombing of North Vietnam, so my guess was that there would have been a lot more North Vietnamese than that around. This information was corroborated then by the reports of interviews with captured prisoners and other material that I reviewed. Some of this material was provided by Fred Branfman and some I was able to find as I saw a bit more of the country—not much, but some. This visit to Laos was a very moving experience. There had been some reporting of the so-called secret war. Jacques Decornoy had had an article in Le Monde and freelance journalist Tim Allman had written about it. So, there was scattered material, but I was able to see evidence in some depth that hadn’t appeared. I guess of any of the things I’ve ever written, that was the one that was closest to my feelings. I usually try to keep my feelings out of what I write, but I probably didn’t in that one.
Most of what the authors discuss is either directly or indirectly proof of how American attempts at global hegemony are never built to last, either by sheer incompetence or the fact that peoples tend not to be enslaved forever.
On how the United States amassed Mujahideen and, indirectly, created 9/11:
VIJAY: In 2004, you described the Mujahideen in much the same way as you spoke about the Contras:
NOAM: The United States went beyond supporting the Mujahideen. They organized them. They collected radical Islamists from around the world, the most violent, crazed elements they could find, and tried to forge them into a military force in Afghanistan. You could argue that would have been legitimate if it had been for the purpose of defending Afghanistan. But it wasn’t. In fact, it probably prolonged the war in Afghanistan. It looks from the Russian archives as though they were ready to pull out in the early 1980s, and this prolonged the war. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to harm the Russians, not to defend the Afghans. So, the Mujahideen were carrying out terrorist activities right inside Russia, based in Afghanistan. Incidentally, those terrorist activities stopped after the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan, because what they were trying to do is just what they say, in their terminology, protect Muslim lands from the infidels. When the infidels pulled out, they stopped carrying out terrorist attacks in Russia from Afghanistan. Islamists were brought to Afghanistan. They were armed, trained, directed by Pakistani intelligence mainly, but under CIA supervision and control, with the support of Britain and other powers, for the purpose of trying to harm the Russians as much as possible at that time. And, yes, they morphed into what became al-Qaeda. Eqbal Ahmad recognized right away and warned—a lonely voice—that the United States and its allies were creating a terrorist monster, reviving concepts of “jihad” as “holy war” that had been dormant for centuries in the Islamic world.
A magnificent power of Prashad and Chomsky is how both scholars are able to deftly lay out many facts on a big table to create a simple picture.
In one of the most beautiful and plain passages in the book, Chomsky talks about American military violations of international and U.N. laws and weaves in the climate catastrophe:
VIJAY: In 2015, you told Isabelle Kumar that the United States is the greatest terrorist country in the world. That was the headline. What you were actually talking about was the U.S. assassination campaign by drones in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. You said that the assassination campaign is the worst terrorist campaign in the world by far, orchestrated in Washington by a liberal democratic administration. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has a reliable catalogue of the drone strikes. It calculates that between 2010 and 2020, the United States conducted over fourteen thousand drone strikes, killing between 8,858 and 16,901 people (of them 910 to 2,200 were civilians and of them again 283 to 454 were children). Azmat Khan and her colleagues who produced the Civilian Casualty Files on U.S.-led air strikes in Iraq and Syria have found that in half the strikes there was no Islamic State member nearby and the only deaths were of civilians. Between the Bureau— with good information on Afghanistan and Pakistan— and the Civilian Casualty Files—with good information on Iraq and Syria—we have an astounding collection of facts on the murderous nature of these wars. This drone campaign was another recruitment tool for the Taliban in the Afghanistan and Pakistan borderlands, while the air war on Iraq and Syria certainly deepens antipathy to the United States. These are pretty self-evidently terrorist actions.
NOAM: Imagine if Iran were carrying out an international terrorist campaign to assassinate people who it thought might pose a potential danger to Iran? Every leading figure in the U.S. government and the Israeli government, and anybody else who happened to be standing around, would be treated as collateral damage for this campaign. Suppose that they did that. What would the United States say? First of all, we wouldn’t say anything, because we’d nuke them and wipe them out. But if we were to say anything, we would say, They’re the greatest terrorist threat in the world. How can a country dare to go around assassinating people? Which is what the drone campaign is actually all about. It kills people that the United States believes pose a threat to the United States or to its interests. What it actually means is that a couple of guys in northwestern Pakistan are fixing a tire, and a drone circles around them, decides that they are up to no good, and then blasts them with a hellfire missile. That’s President Barack Obama’s policy. President Donald Trump made it worse, using the Mother of all Bombs on the people of southeastern Afghanistan.
I know that the statement about the United States being a terrorist country is considered an outrageous statement. I make outrageous statements purposely if they are true. I don’t care if they are outrageous. A few years ago, I said that Trump is the most dangerous criminal in world history. How can you be more outrageous than that? But then let’s look at the facts. Can you think of any other figure in world history who is as dedicated with passion to destroying the prospects of human life on Earth? Not Hitler, not Genghis Khan, nobody except Trump. The United States had been dragging its feet on efforts to do something about the impending existential catastrophe of environmental destruction. Trump accelerated the devastation. He said, Who cares? Let’s race to the precipice as fast as possible, maximize the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous of them, get rid of all the regulations that somewhat mitigate their effect, let’s destroy everything as quickly as possible for the benefit of my masters, the people in the ExxonMobil corporate headquarters who need to register their profits tomorrow. That’s the precise order of things. Wipe out everything. Can you find an analogous figure in history?
The point is that these are outrageous statements, but they happen to be true, and they are true not just in my opinion. The Gallup organization once made a mistake. This was in 2013, the Obama years, when it asked, “Which country is the greatest threat to world peace?” There was no competitor to the United States. It was far ahead, with Pakistan second, inflated no doubt by the Indian vote. China, North Korea, Israel, and Iran brought up the third tier of threats, far behind the United States. That poll didn’t get published in the United States. Look at the key foreign-policy initiatives of the United States government: the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the blockade of Cuba, the sanctions on Iran and Venezuela—overwhelming opposition from the world’s peoples and governments.
After 9/11, President George W. Bush sighed plaintively, Why do they hate us? The point is that we are supposed to be so noble and so wonderful, so why do they hate us? The government did set up a Pentagon investigation to answer Bush’s question. Its answer was: They hate us because of what we have done to them. That didn’t get very far. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked his staff the same question: Why do they hate us? We’ve been so good to them. We even forced Israel, Britain, and France to withdraw from the Sinai, not because we opposed it but because they were getting into our turf. We’re the only ones who can do things like that. They shouldn’t do it. They’re the nineteenth-century people. So, we kick them out. And yet, the people are not grateful to us. They still hate us. Well, there was an answer given by the National Security Council, basically the same one that was given to Bush: They hate us because of what we do to them.
Can’t imagine why the remnants of Native Americans might have some negative feelings about the United States, or why, say, Mexicans could look at the town where I live in occupied Mexico and say something was wrong with a war of aggression; we stole half of Mexico from Mexico, now the Southwestern and Western United States. How could they have any negative feelings about that? It’s all for the benefit of civilization. In fact, if they don’t know it already, they could read the leading American writers, people like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Walt Whitman, who asked what a bunch of ignorant Mexicans have to do with the future of the human race? You don’t have to read crazed imperial maniacs like Theodore Roosevelt. You can read one of the liberal commentators, like Emerson and Whitman, who were in a more modulated tone saying pretty much the same thing. Apologists for the British Empire said the same: Look at all the wonderful things we’re doing for India after we’ve destroyed them.
There are in–depth discussions on how the U.S. define differences between just and unjust wars, how the U.S. intervened in the Iran–Iraq war, how Iran treated allogations of having weapons of mass destruction, how Libya was torn apart by the NATO bombing of 2011 (and subsequent extreme starvation, which is still ongoing), and how NATO works.
NATO was restructured. They had to have a new mission. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former prime minister of Denmark, was then secretary-general of NATO. In 2014, he said that NATO’s new role was to protect the global energy system. Well, “energy security” means control the whole world, since there are pipelines everywhere and since there is maritime passage everywhere. NATO weaponized the idea of “human rights” to give it the unique right to intervene anywhere, using the Gareth Evans version of R2P, namely that NATO—as a regional organization—had the right to intervene without a UN Security Council resolution. NATO means the United States. Nobody does anything in NATO unless the United States initiates it; then, other powers can decide whether to go along with it. The idea was to reconstruct NATO to make the United States the global hegemon, which it already was in terms of power, but this formalized it. So, it is not merely NATO’s official mission to control the world, but NATO was reconstructed as the instrument for the United States to try to control the world.
A propos the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the U.S. let it play out as a proxy war, it is interesting to quote Prashad:
Three of the major interventions outside Europe that the United States initiated after the collapse of the USSR—namely, in Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and Libya (2011)—were not done directly as U.S. intervention but came under the guise of a NATO intervention.
Prashad and Chomsky show how NATO cannot—relating to international law and UN Security Counsil resolution 1973—commit war crimes, which is naturally insanity:
VIJAY: On February 15, 2012, Peter Olson, NATO’s lead attorney, wrote to the commission to say that NATO had not violated the letter of the UN resolution. Qaddafi, Olson wrote, had “committed serious violations of international law,” but NATO had not: We would be concerned, however, if “NATO incidents” were included in the Commission’s report as on a par with those which the Commission may ultimately conclude did violate law or constitute crimes. We note in this regard that the Commission’s mandate is to discuss “the facts and circumstance of . . . violations [of law] and . . . crimes perpetrated.” We would accordingly request that, in the event the Commission elects to include a discussion of NATO actions in Libya, its report clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya. No investigation necessary, since NATO ipso facto “did not deliberately target civilians” and therefore “did not commit war crimes.” Case closed.
NOAM: Olson is right. That’s an axiom. NATO means the United States, and the United States cannot commit war crimes by definition. Even in the canons of international law, the United States cannot commit war crimes. When the United States agreed to jurisdiction by the World Court, it inserted a proviso that the United States was not bound by the UN Charter or the Charter of the Organization of American States [OAS]. This is the text that the United States inserted as part of the “acceptance of jurisdiction” in 1946. Those are the foundations of modern international law. The United States insisted right away that it was not to be bound by either the UN Charter or the OAS Charter, so therefore it is legally entitled to commit war crimes, even to commit genocide. When the United States signed on to the genocide convention in 1988—after a thirty-seven-year battle in the U.S. Senate—it added a proviso saying that it did not apply to the United States. The tribunal at the International Court of Justice that assessed the Yugoslav charge against NATO in 1999 permitted the United States to separate itself and not be subject to the charge, because the Yugoslav charge included the word genocide and the United States—by law—is entitled to carry out genocide. Across the board, the United States is legally permitted to commit any crime, and the international legal system accepts this as they must, because the World Court does accept the condition that if a country does not subject itself to court rulings, then they cannot be prosecuted. That’s the way the system is set up. So, Olson was correct. NATO, meaning the United States, cannot commit war crimes.
It should be understood that this book is, at its core, a collection of talks between the authors. It is not academically structured, and some might argue that its subtitle is a bit of a misnomer due to how the contents relate more to the USA has invaded and mistreated the three countries (Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan) rather than spending an equal amount of time on all of them. On the other hand, these talks are a fine collection that both clarifies international political and economical situations and also untangles a plethora of lies that make it seem as though all of these countries somehow not only brought their misery onto themselves, but also deserved it.
This is a book that deserves to be read by all who want or need a intro to, or a refresher for how the USA—along with NATO, their extended hand of fate—have treated the world around them, with focus on the Middle East, along with that of the rest of our world.