Noam Chomsky and Jeremy Scahill on the Media, Propaganda, and Accountability
Jeremy Scahill / The Intercept
(April 18, 2022) — The Russian invasion of Ukraine has now surpassed 50 days of sustained mass death and destruction. Despite several rounds of negotiations over the past seven weeks, the war continues to intensify. Russian President Vladimir Putin remains defiant and has indicated that the brutal military campaign will continue unabated.
On Tuesday, Putin said negotiations had hit a “dead end” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that Russia will not pause its military operations during future peace talks. US President Joe Biden announced this week yet another allocation of $800 million dollars in “more sophisticated and heavier-duty weaponry” than previous transfers to the Ukrainian side.
Meanwhile, NATO appears set to expand further, with both Finland and Sweden indicating they are actively considering joining the alliance. Germany and other European countries are publicly committing to buying and selling more weapons and spending more on defense. NATO is raising the prospect of expanding its permanent military presence in Europe, and Washington is reasserting its political dominance over Europe on security matters.
On Sunday, in an interview on NBC, national security adviser Jake Sullivan cast the war not just as a defense of Ukraine but also an opportunity to deliver significant blows to the stability of the Russian state. “At the end of the day, what we want to see is a free and independent Ukraine, a weakened and isolated Russia, and a stronger, more unified, more determined West,” he said. “We believe that all three of those objectives are in sight, can be accomplished.”
As Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russian forces of heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity, including massacres of large numbers of civilians, Putin’s government and media apparatus is waging an all-out campaign to denounce the allegations as lies and fake news.
Biden has officially accused Putin of war crimes and suggested he should face a “war crime trial.” Russia, like the US, has steadfastly refused to ratify the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, so it is unclear how or where the administration believes such a trial would take place.
This week, renowned dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky joined me for a wide-ranging discussion on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, holding the powerful accountable, the role of media and propaganda in war, and what Chomsky believes is necessary to end the bloodshed in Ukraine.
Jeremy Scahill: Thank you very much for joining us here at The Intercept for this discussion with Professor Noam Chomsky.
We’re going to be discussing today, the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine, the horrors that we’ve seen coming out of Ukraine, the bloodshed, the massacres, the killings.
But also we are witnessing a major assertion of power by the United States in Europe, calls for expanding US militarism in Europe, European governments pledging to spend more money on weapons systems and to increase their activities as arms brokers. The United States, at present, is the largest weapons dealer in the world.
At the same time, our guests Noam Chomsky says that this was an act of aggression, state-sponsored act of aggression, that belongs in the history books alongside the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, as well as the 1939 invasion of Poland by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
I want to welcome Professor Noam Chomsky to this forum here on The Intercept. Noam, thank you very much for being with us.
Noam Chomsky: Pleased to be with you.
JS: I want to start because there’s been a lot of discussion on the left in the United States among anti-war activists on how to make sense of what a just response would look like to Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and the mass killing that we are seeing. We can take time to talk about the broader historical context, and you’ve been discussing this a lot in other interviews, but I want to just start by asking you, is there any aspect of the US, NATO, and European Union response to this invasion that you believe is just: the weapons transfers to Ukraine, the sweeping economic sanctions and attempts to entirely isolate not only Russia and Putin, but ordinary Russians? Is there any aspect of the government response to this by the US, NATO or the European Union that you agree with?
NC: I think that support for Ukraine’s effort to defend itself is legitimate. If it is, of course, it has to be carefully scaled, so that it actually improves their situation and doesn’t escalate the conflict, to lead to destruction of Ukraine and possibly beyond sanctions against the aggressor, or appropriate just as sanctions against Washington would have been appropriate when it invaded Iraq, or Afghanistan, or many other cases. Of course, that’s unthinkable given US power and, in fact, the first few times it has been done — the one time it has been done — the US simply shrugged its shoulders and escalated the conflict. That was in Nicaragua ,when the US was brought to the World Court, condemned for unlawful use of force or to pay reparations, responded by escalating the conflict. So it’s unthinkable in the case of the US, but it would be appropriate.
However, I still think it’s not quite the right question. The right question is: What is the best thing to do to save Ukraine from a grim fate, from further destruction? And that’s to move towards a negotiated settlement.
There are some simple facts that aren’t really controversial. There are two ways for a war to end: One way is for one side or the other to be basically destroyed. And the Russians are not going to be destroyed. So that means one way is for Ukraine to be destroyed.
The other way is some negotiated settlement. If there’s a third way, no one’s ever figured it out. So what we should be doing is devoting all the things you mentioned, if properly shaped, but primarily moving towards a possible negotiated settlement that will save Ukrainians from further disaster. That should be the prime focus.
That requires that we can’t look into the minds of Vladimir Putin and the small clique around him; we can speculate, but can’t do much about it. We can, however, look at the United States and we can see that our explicit policy — explicit — is rejection of any form of negotiations. The explicit policy goes way back, but it was given a definitive form in September 2021 in the September 1 joint policy statement that was then reiterated and expanded in the November 10 charter of agreement.
And if you look at what it says, it basically says no negotiations. What it says is it calls for Ukraine to move towards what they called an enhanced program for entering NATO, which kills negotiations; — this is before the invasion notice — an increase in the dispatch of advanced weapons to Ukraine, more military training, the joint military exercises, weapons placed on the border. We can’t be sure, but it’s possible that these strong statements may have been a factor in leading Putin and his circle to move from warning to direct invasion. We don’t know. But as long as that policy is guiding the United States, it’s basically saying, to quote Ambassador Chas Freeman, it’s saying: Let’s fight to the last Ukrainian. [That’s] basically, what it amounts to.
So the questions you raised are important, interesting, just what is the appropriate kind of military aid to give Ukrainians defending themselves enough to defend themselves, but not to lead to an escalation that will just simply lead to massive destruction? And what kinds of sanctions or other actions could be effective in deterring the aggressors? Those are all important, but they pale into insignificance in comparison with the primary need to move towards a negotiated settlement, which is the only alternative to destruction of Ukraine, which of course, Russia is capable of carrying out.
JS: You know, it’s interesting because Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been really lionized, particularly in the US and Western European media. And he’s become a kind of caricature, with these grand, sweeping historical comparisons. And often the quotes from him are intended to give the appearance of this defiant leader who is going to fight to the end. But when you read between the lines, and you read what Ukrainian negotiators are saying, when you read what Zelenskyy says when pressed on conditions for peace, he seems to be extremely aware of the factors that you’re citing, that this has to end in a negotiation.
And I want to ask you about the role of the US and European media in perpetuating this mythology around Zelenskyy, and the way in which it seems to kind of undermine the seriousness of the negotiators of Ukraine or of Zelenskyy when he is talking in a nuanced manner. It seems that there’s this intent to kind of create a caricature rather than actually listening to the conditions that Ukraine is stating it can live with.
NC: Yes, you’re absolutely right. If you look at the media coverage, Zelenskyy’s very clear, explicit, serious statements about what could be a political settlement — crucially, neutralization of Ukraine — those have been literally suppressed for a long period, then sidelined in favor of heroic, Winston Churchill impersonations by Congressman, others casting Zelenskyy in that mold.
So, yes, of course. He’s made it pretty clear that he cares about whether Ukraine survives, whether Ukrainians survive, and has therefore put forth a series of reasonable proposals that could well be the basis for negotiation.
We should bear in mind that the nature of a political settlement, the general nature of it, has been pretty clear on all sides for quite some time. In fact, if the US had been willing to consider them, there might not have been an invasion at all.
Before the invasion, the US basically had two choices: One was to pursue its official stance, which I just reviewed, which makes the negotiations impossible and may have led to war; the other possibility was to pursue the options that were available. To an extent, they’re still somewhat available, attenuated by the war, but the basic terms are pretty clear.
Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister announced at the beginning of the invasion that Russia had two main goals — two main goals. Neutralization of Ukraine and demilitarization. Demilitarization doesn’t mean getting rid of all your arms. It means getting rid of heavy weapons connected to the interaction with NATO aimed at Russia. What his terms meant basically was to turn Ukraine into something like Mexico. So Mexico is a sovereign state that can choose its own way in the world, no limitations, but it can’t join a Chinese-run military alliances in placing advanced weapons, Chinese weapons, on the US border, carrying out joint military operations with the People’s Liberation Army, getting training and advanced weapons from Chinese instructors and so on. In fact, that’s so inconceivable that nobody even dares to talk about it. I mean, if any hint of anything like that happened, we know what the next step would be — no need to talk about it. So it’s just inconceivable.
And basically, Lavrov’s proposals could plausibly be interpreted as saying: Let’s turn Ukraine into Mexico. Well, that was an option that could have been pursued. Instead, the US preferred to do what I just described as inconceivable for Mexico.
Now, that’s not the whole story. There are other issues. One issue is Crimea. The fact of the matter is Crimea is off the table. We may not like it. Crimeans apparently do like it. But the US says: We’re never going to concede it. Well, that is the basis for permanent conflict. Zelenskyy has sensibly said: Let’s put that off for further discussion. That makes sense.
Another issue is the Donbas region. That’s been a region of extreme violence for eight years on both sides: Ukrainian shelling, Russian shelling, land mines all over the place, lots of violence. There are OSCE observers, European observers on the ground who give regular reports. You can read them, they’re public. They don’t try to assess the source of the violence — that’s not their mission — but they talk about its radical increase. According to them, if my memory is correct, about 15,000 people or something in that neighborhood may have been killed in the conflict over the last eight years since the Maidan Uprising.
Well, something has to be done about Donbas, the proper reaction, which maybe the Russians would accept, would be a referendum, an internationally supervised referendum to see what the people of the region want. One possibility, which was available before the invasion, was implementation of the Minsk II agreements, which provided for some form of autonomy in the region within a broader Ukrainian Federation, something like maybe Switzerland or Belgium or other places where there are federal structures — conflict, but confined within federal structures. That would have been a possibility. Whether it could have worked, there’s only one way to find out: to try. The US refused to try; instead, insisted on a super-militant position, official position, which, as far as I know, the press has yet to report. You can tell me if I’m wrong, but I have never seen one reference anywhere in the mainstream press. Occasionally, we at the margins; any reference to the official US position of September 1, 2021, the reiteration or expansion of it in November in the charter.
Actually I saw one reference to it in the American Conservative, conservative journal, which did refer to it. And, of course, on the left people have talked about it. But the US insisted on that position, which the alternative would have been to pursue the opposite, the option of saying: OK, your main goals are neutralization and demilitarization, meaning Mexico-style arrangement, let’s pursue that. With regard to Crimea, let’s accept Zelenskyy’s sensible position that let’s delay it, we can’t deal with it now. With regard to the Donbas region, work towards some kind of framework with autonomy, based on the opinions of the people who live there, which can be determined by an internationally supervised referendum. Would the Russians agree? We don’t know. Would the United States agree? We don’t know. All we know is they’re rejecting it, officially. Could they be pressed to accept it? I don’t know. We can try. That’s the one thing we can hope to do.
I mean, there is a sort of a guiding principle that we should be keeping in mind, no matter what the issue, the most important question is: What can we do about it? Not: What can somebody else do about it? That’s worth talking about. But from the most elementary point of view, the major question is, what can we do about it? And we can, in principle, at least do a lot about US policy, less about other things. So I think that’s where the focus of our attention and energy should be.
JS: I want to ask you about some of the statements that Biden administration officials have made in recent days. On the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, you had the national security adviser and the Secretary of State both laying out what was almost an overt war plan for seeking to fundamentally weaken the Russian state and talking about the war in Ukraine as helping to achieve a goal of a severely weakened Russia.
To what extent are US actions that we’re witnessing now in Ukraine, ultimately aimed at bringing down the government, in Moscow, of Vladimir Putin? Yes, there was the kerfuffle over Biden talking about the this-guy’s-got-to-go quote. But the actions are playing out in full public view. And I think a lot of people put too much weight on a particular clip of Joe Biden, though he may have intentionally said it that way. It’s hard to tell right now with him whether he means to say something or not. But setting that aside, it does seem that a major aspect of the US position right now is that this is a grand opportunity to — they smell the blood of Putin in the water, I guess, is what I’m saying now.
NC: Yes, I think the actions indicate that. But remember, there’s something along with action — namely inaction. What is the United States not doing? Well, what it’s not doing is rescinding the policies that I described, maybe the American press doesn’t let Americans know about them, but you can be sure that Russian intelligence reads what is on the official White House website, obviously. So maybe Americans can be kept in the dark, but the Russians read and know about it. And they know that one form of inaction is not to change that.
The other form of inaction is not to move to participate in negotiations. Now, there are two countries that could, because of their power, facilitate a diplomatic settlement — I don’t say bring about, but facilitate, make it more likely. One of them is China; the other is the United States. China is being rightly criticized for a refusal to take this step; criticism of the United States is not allowed, so the United States is not being criticized for its failure to take this step and, furthermore, its actions, which makes this step more remote, like the statements you quote on the Sunday talk shows.
Just imagine how they reach Putin and his circle, what they’re saying, what they interpret as meaning is: Nothing you can do. Go ahead and destroy Ukraine as much as you like. There’s nothing you can do, because you’re going to be out. We’re going to ensure that you have no future. So therefore, you might as well go for broke.
That’s what the heroic pronouncements on the Sunday talk show mean. It may feel like, again, Winston Churchill impersonations, very exciting. But what they translate into is: Destroy Ukraine. That’s the translation. Inaction, in refusal to withdraw the policy positions that the Russians certainly are fully aware of, even if Americans are kept in the dark, one is to withdraw those. Second is: Do what we blame China for not doing. Join in efforts to facilitate a diplomatic settlement and stop telling the Russians: There’s no way out; you might as well go for broke; your backs are against the wall.
Those are things that could be done.
JS: Now, I want to ask you about media coverage. And first, I just want to say that we have already seen a horrifying number of journalists killed in Ukraine. In fact, a friend of mine, the filmmaker Brent Renaud, was one of the first journalists killed in Ukraine. And it’s horrifying to witness media workers, some of whom appear to have been directly targeted for killing. So I guess I just want to say at the onset that I think we’re seeing some incredibly brave and vital journalism coming out of Ukraine, and much of it is being done by Ukrainian reporters. And that statement just needs to stand on its own.
But back in the studios in Washington, and Berlin, and London, there’s a different form of media activism happening. And it really seems as though many journalists see their role now working for powerful, particularly broadcast media outlets, as supporting the position of the United States and NATO and being actual propagandists for a particular outcome and course of action. And this is happening at the same time that the Biden administration is now admitting that it has been manipulating the media by putting out unverified intelligence and pushing claims about plans to use chemical weapons and other actions.
And I just want to read to you, Noam, from an NBC News report recently, it said: “It was an attention-grabbing assertion that made headlines around the world. US officials said they had indications suggesting Russia might be preparing to use chemical agents in Ukraine. President Joe Biden later said it publicly. But three US officials told NBC News this week there is no evidence Russia has brought any chemical weapons near Ukraine. They said the US released the information to deter Russia from using the banned munitions […] Multiple US officials acknowledged that the US has used information as a weapon even when confidence in the accuracy of the information wasn’t high. Sometimes it has used low-confidence intelligence for deterrent effect, as with chemical agents, and at other times, as an official put it, the US is just ‘trying to get inside Putin’s head.’”
Now this kind of activity from the US government is not new. What I think is extraordinary or interesting is that they’re now not only owning it publicly, but they are almost celebrating that they’re able to use their own news media and powerful journalists to spread it as part of their war effort.
NC: As you say, it’s by no means new. You can trace it far back in a concentrated, organized form back to World War I, when the British established a Ministry of Information. We know what that means. The goal of the Ministry of Information was to put up horror stories about German war crimes which would induce Americans to get into the war, Woodrow Wilson — and it worked. If you read US liberal intellectuals, they were taken. They accepted it. They said: Yes, we have to stop these horrible crimes that the British Ministry of Information is concocting in order to mislead us.
President Wilson set up his own ministry of public information, meaning lies to the public, to try to encourage Americans to hate everything German. So the Boston Symphony Orchestra wouldn’t play Beethoven, for example.
Then it goes on. Reagan had what’s called an Office of Public Diplomacy, meaning an office to lie to the public and the media about what we’re doing. But it’s not a hard task for the government.
And the reason was actually stated, rather clearly, by the public relations officer of the United Fruit Company, back in 1954, when the US was moving to overthrow the democratic government of Guatemala and install a vicious, brutal dictatorship, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people with US support ever since. He was asked by the media: What about the United Fruit Company efforts to try to convince journalists to support this? He said: Yes, we did it. But you have to remember how eager they were for the experience.
OK? Wasn’t hard. They wanted it. We fed them these lies. They were delighted because they wanted to support the state and its violence and terror.
Now, that’s not the journalists on the ground. There is a split, as you describe. It’s true of every war. So in Nicaragua, in the Central American wars of the 1980s, there were great reporters on the ground. The Vietnam War, same thing, doing serious, courageous work — many suffering for it. You get up to the newsrooms; it looks totally different. That’s a fact about the media.
And we don’t have to look far back. You can take a look at The New York Times. It’s the best newspaper in the world, which is not a high bar. Its main thinker, a big thinker, who writes serious articles, had an article, an op-ed a day or two ago, saying: How can we deal with war criminals? What can we do? We’re stuck. There’s this war criminal running Russia. How can we possibly deal with him?
The interesting thing about that article is not so much that it appeared. You expect that kind of stuff. It’s that it didn’t elicit ridicule. In fact, there was no comment on it. We don’t know how to deal with war criminals? Sure, we do. In fact, we had a clear exhibition of it just a couple of days ago. One of the leading war criminals in the United States is the man who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq; can’t go far beyond that as being a war criminal. And, in fact, on the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, there was one interview in the press. To its credit, The Washington Post did interview him in the Style section. The interview is worth reading: It’s about this lovable, goofy grandpa playing with his grandchildren; happy family, showing off the portraits he painted of great people he had met.
So we know how to deal with war criminals. What’s the problem? We deal with them very easily. Nevertheless, this column could appear in the world’s greatest newspaper, which is interesting enough, and not elicit a word of comment, which is much more interesting.
Well, that tells you what you’re talking about, as Tom McCann said, the United Fruit Company PR guy: They’re eager for the experience.
It doesn’t take much propaganda. So the government can work hard with its cognitive control systems. But it’s pushing an open door at the editorial level. And this has been true as far back as you want to go, and it still is.
JS: Charlie Savage, who is not an op-ed writer, but is an excellent national security reporter for The New York Times, also had a piece that dealt with some of this this week in The New York Times. And it was an analytical piece, looking at the challenge that the US has made for itself because of its grand hypocrisy on issues of international criminal court.
And I just want to summarize a little bit for people that maybe don’t follow this the way that you do or I do. But the short of it is that the United States has consistently been adamantly and militantly opposed to any international judicial body that would have jurisdiction over its own actions. And in fact, in 2002, George W. Bush signed into law a bipartisan piece of legislation that came to be known as the Hague Invasion Act. And people can go online and read the bill themselves, and it’s still the law of the land in the United States, but one of the clauses of that law states that the US military can be authorized to literally conduct a military operation in the Netherlands to liberate any US personnel who are brought there on war crimes charges or under war crimes investigation. That’s why it’s called, by many activists and civil libertarians, the Hague Invasion Act.
At the same time, Joe Biden himself has said Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, and has called for a war crimes trial while the United States itself has only supported these ad hoc tribunals for countries like Yugoslavia, or Rwanda, and, like Russia, the United States refuses to ratify the treaty that established the International Criminal Court.
I’m sure, Noam, that you and I both agree that there are massive war crimes being conducted right now in Ukraine — certainly Russia is the dominant military power and I wouldn’t be surprised for one second if a huge percentage of the war crimes being committed are being done by Russia. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t war crimes being committed by Ukraine. We already have video evidence of this, of both Ukraine and Russia. But I want to be clear here; I believe that Russia is committing systemic war crimes in Ukraine. But when you have the United States undermining the International Criminal Court, refusing to ratify the treaty, how can Joe Biden call for a war crimes trial, when Dick Cheney and George Bush are walking around as free men, not to mention Henry Kissinger? And when the US itself won’t accept that that court should have jurisdiction equally over all powers in the world?
NC: Well, two questions, points of fact: You’re quite right, that the overwhelming mass of the war crimes, the ones that we should be considering, are carried out by the Russians. That’s not in dispute. And they are major war crimes. It’s also true that the United States totally blocked the ICC. But notice there’s nothing new about that. There’s even a stronger case, which has been deep-sixed. The United States is the only country to have rejected a judgment of the International Criminal Court — of the World Court. They used to have two companions, Hoxha of Albania and Qaddafi in Libya. But they are gone. So now the US stands in splendid isolation in having rejected the judgment of the World Court, that was in 1986, dealt with one of Washington’s minor crimes, the war against Nicaragua. The court condemned the United States for — the words were — “unlawful use of force,” meaning international terrorism, ordered the US to desist and pay substantial reparations.
Well, there was a reaction by the Reagan administration and Congress: Escalate the crimes. That was the reaction. There was a reaction in the press: The New York Times editorial saying the court decision is irrelevant, because the court is a hostile forum. Why is it a hostile forum? Because it dares to accuse the United States of crimes. So that takes care of that. So the reaction is to escalate the crimes.
Nicaragua actually sponsored first a Security Council resolution, which didn’t mention the United States, just called on all states to observe international law; the US vetoed it. It was on record as saying to the Security Council, states should not observe international law. It then went to the General Assembly who overwhelmingly approved a similar resolution. US opposed, Israel opposed, two states that should not observe international law. Well, all of that, that’s not part of history as far as the United States is concerned. That’s the kind of history, according to Republicans, you shouldn’t teach because it’s divisive, makes people feel bad. You shouldn’t teach it. But you don’t have to tell anyone because it’s not taught. And it’s not remembered — virtually no one remembers it.
And it goes beyond that. The United States, in fact, when the major treaties, like the Organization of American States treaty, were signed back in the 40s, the United States added reservations, saying basically not applicable to the United States. In fact, the United States very rarely signs any conventions — very rarely. I mean ratifies — sometimes it signs. And when it does ratify them, they are with reservations, excluding the United States.
That even includes the Genocide Convention. There is a Genocide Convention. The United States finally ratified it after, I think, about 40 years, but with a reservation saying inapplicable to the United States. We are entitled to commit genocide. That came to the international tribunals: Yugoslavia tribunal, or maybe it was the World Court. I don’t remember. Yugoslavia charged NATO with crimes in its attack on Serbia. The NATO powers agreed to enter into the details of the court operations. The US refused. And it did on grounds that Yugoslavia had mentioned genocide. And the United States is self-immune, immunized from the charge of genocide. And the court accepted that correctly. Countries are subject to jurisdiction only if they accept it. Well, that’s us.
We can go on. We’re a rogue state, the leading rogue state by a huge dimension — nobody’s even close. And yet we can call for war crimes trials of others, without batting an eyelash. We can even have columns by the major columnist, most respected columnist, saying: How can we deal with a war criminal?
It’s interesting to look at the reaction to all of this in the more civilized part of the world, the global self. They look at it; they condemn the invasion, say it’s a horrible crime. But the basic response is: What’s new? What’s the fuss about? We’ve been subjected to this from you from as far back as it goes, Biden calls Putin a war criminal; yeah, takes one to know one. It’s the basic reaction.
You can see it simply by looking at the sanctions map. The United States doesn’t understand why most of the world doesn’t join in sanctions. Which countries join in sanctions? Take a look. The map is revealing. The English-speaking countries, Europe, and those who apartheid South Africa called honorary whites: Japan, with a couple of its former colonies. That’s it. The rest of the world says: Yeah, terrible, but what’s new? What’s the fuss about? Why should we get involved in your hypocrisy?
The US can’t understand that. How can they fail to condemn the crimes the way we do? Well, they do condemn the crimes the way we do, but they go a step beyond which we don’t — namely, what I just described? Well, that means there’s a lot of work to do in the United States simply to raise the level of civilization to where we can see the world, the way the traditional victims see it. If we can rise to that level, we can act in a much more constructive way with regard to Ukraine as well.
JS: What do you see — or how would you analyze right now, the posture of the United States toward India and China, in particular? I mean, two massive countries representing a large portion of the world’s population, relative to the size of the United States for certain, but the economic pressure that the United States is putting on both India and China right now, what are the consequences of the US posture toward both India and China right now?
NC: Well, it’s different. For one thing the United States is quite supportive of the Indian government. India has a neo-fascist government. The Modi government is working hard to destroy Indian democracy, turn India into a racist, Hindu kleptocracy, attack Muslims, conquer Kashmir — not a word about that. The United States supports all that. It’s very supportive. It’s a close ally, a close ally of Israel — our kind of guy, in other words, so no problem.
And the problem with India is it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t go as far as we want it to, to join in the assault against Russia. It is playing a neutral game like all of the Global South saying: Yeah, it’s a crime, but we’re not going to get involved in your game.
And the other thing is, India is participating, but not as actively as the US would like in its policy of what the Biden administration calls “encircling China.” One of our major policy, Russia’s kind of a sideline, but the major policy is to encircle China — containment is out of fashion, so encircle China — with sentinel states, that’s the term that’s used, armed to the teeth with massive offensive capacity to protect ourselves from what’s called the threat of China. That’s a ring of states from South Korea, Japan, Australia, India — except India is not joining actively enough — which we will provide, the Biden administration has just recently announced providing advanced precision missiles aimed at China.
In the case of Australia, the United States, along with Britain, its puppy dog, is providing Australia with advanced nuclear submarines, advertised as able to get into Chinese ports without being detected and to destroy the Chinese fleet in two or three days. China has an ancient prehistoric fleet there — they don’t even have nuclear submarines — old fashioned diesel submarines.
Meanwhile, the United States is enhancing its own capacity to defend ourselves. So far, we have Trident nuclear submarines, which are able to, each one, one submarine, can destroy almost 200 cities anywhere in the world with a nuclear strike. But that’s not enough. We’re now moving to more advanced, I think it’s called Virginia-class submarines, which will be far more destructive. And that’s our policy towards China.
We also have an economic policy. The United States just passed a bipartisan, two-party supported act to improve the US technology, science infrastructure, not because it would be good for the United States — we couldn’t consider that — but because it would compete with China. It’s the compete-with-China bill. So if we want to have better science and technology, it is because we have to beat down China, make sure China doesn’t get ahead of us. Let’s not work with China, to deal with truly existential problems like global warming, or less serious but severe problems, like pandemics and nuclear weapons. Let’s compete with them and make sure we can beat them down — that’s what’s important — and get ahead of them.
It’s a pathology. You can’t imagine anything more lunatic. Incidentally: What is the China threat? It’s not that China’s got a very brutal, harsh government. But the US never cares about things like that. Deals with them easily. The China threat, there’s an interesting article about it by an Australian statesman, well-known international statesman, former prime minister, Paul Keating, who reviews the various elements of the China threat, and concludes, finally, that the China threat is that China exists. And he’s correct. China exists and does not follow US orders. That’s no good. You have to follow US orders. If you don’t, you’re in trouble.
Well, most countries do. Europe does. Europe despises US sanctions against Cuba, Iran, strongly opposes them, but it observes them because you don’t step on the toes of the godfather. So they observe US sanctions. China doesn’t. China’s engaged in what the State Department once called “successful defiance” of US policies. That was 1960s when the State Department was explaining why we have to torture Cuba, carry out a terrorist war against it, almost leading to nuclear war, impose highly destructive sanctions — we’re still at it after 60 years, posed by the entire world. Look at the votes in the General Assembly 184-2, US and Israel. We have to do it as the liberal state department explained in the 1960s because of Cuba’s successful defiance of US policies going back to 1823.
The Monroe Doctrine, which stated the US determination to dominate the hemisphere — [we] weren’t strong enough to do it at the time, but that’s the policy. And Cuba is defying it successfully. That’s no good.
China’s not Cuba, it’s much bigger. It’s successfully defying US policies. So no matter how brutal it is, who cares? We support other brutal states all the time, but not successful defiance of US policies. So therefore, we have to encircle China, with sentinel states, with advanced weapons aimed at China, which we have to maintain and upgrade, and ensure that we overwhelm anything in China’s vicinity. That’s part of our official policy. It was formulated by the Trump administration, Jim Mattis, in 2018, taken over by Biden. We have to be able to fight and win two wars with China and Russia.
I mean, that’s beyond insanity. The war with either China or Russia means: Nice knowing you, goodbye civilization, we’re done. But we have to be able to win and fight two of them. And now with Biden, we have to expand it to encircling China with sentinel states to which we provide more advanced weapons, while we upgrade our huge destructive capacity. Like we don’t want those weak nuclear submarines which can destroy 200 cities. That’s sissy stuff. Let’s go beyond.
And then Putin gave the United States a tremendous gift. The war in Ukraine was criminal, but also from his point of view, utterly stupid. He gave the United States the fondest wish; it could have handed Europe to the United States on a golden platter.
I mean, throughout the whole Cold War, one of the major issues in international affairs was whether Europe would become an independent force in international affairs, what was called a third force, maybe along the lines that Charles de Gaulle outlined, or that Gorbachev outlined when the Soviet Union collapsed; common European home, no military alliances, cooperation between Europe and Russia, which had become integrated into peaceful commercial blood. That’s one option.
The other option is what’s called the Atlanticist program, implemented by NATO. The United States calls the shots and you obey, that’s the Atlanticist program. Of course, the US has always supported that one, and has always won. Now Putin solved it for the United States. He said: OK. You get Europe as a subordinate. Europe goes ahead and arms itself to the teeth to protect itself from an army, which Europe says gleefully, is incapable of conquering cities 20 miles from its border. So therefore, we have to arm ourselves to the teeth to defend ourselves from the onslaught of this extraordinarily powerful force against NATO. I mean, if anybody’s observing this from outer space, they’d be cracking up in laughter. But not in the offices of Lockheed Martin. They think it’s terrific. Even better in the offices of Exxon Mobil.
That’s the interesting part. There were some hopes, not major hopes, but some hopes of dealing with a climate crisis that is gonna destroy organized human life on Earth. Not tomorrow, but in the process of doing it. Current, most plausible projections are three degrees Centigrade increase over pre-industrial levels by 20 by the end of the century. That’s catastrophic. I mean, doesn’t mean everybody dies, but it’s a total catastrophe. Well, there were moves to stop that. Now they’ve been reversed.
You look at the stuff that’s coming out of the energy corporations, they’re euphoric. First, we’ve got all these annoying environmentalists out of our hair. They don’t bother us anymore. In fact, now we’re being loved for saving civilization. And that’s not enough. They say: We want to be “hugged” — their word — we want to be hugged by saving civilization, by rapidly expanding the production of fossil fuels, which will destroy everything, but put more cash in our pockets during the period that remains. That’s what somebody from outer space would be looking at. That’s us, OK?
JS: I know, Noam, we have to wrap up. But I do want to note that just in recent days we’ve heard now that the White House is proposing a record-shattering military budget, in excess of $813 billion. And you know, this would be a much longer conversation if we kept it going. But it’s really a number of very significant things that have happened over the course of this war, from the perspective of the US and NATO, among them Germany lifting its cap on the amount of its GDP that it will spend on defense, the pipeline of weapons. And many European countries have been very hesitant to get super-involved with transferring weapons systems and now there’s discussion of even more permanent NATO bases.
And I think part of what you’re getting at, which I think is important for people to understand, is that Vladimir Putin, for whatever reasons he made the decision to do this in Ukraine, ultimately has created conditions that the US has long wished were there for the United States to assert total dominance over European decision-making on issues of militarism. It also is an enormous boondoggle for the war industry. And I think that it’s hard to — go ahead.
NC: And the fossil fuel industry.
JS: And the fossil fuel industry. And I think that as we watch the horrors of human destruction and mass murder happening in Ukraine, we also must find a way to think of the long-term consequences of the actions of our own government. And unfortunately, when you raise these issues, when I raised them, when others do right now, in the US media contexts, there is this Neo McCarthyite response, where to question the dominant narrative, or to question the motives of those in power, is now treated as an act of treason, or it’s traitorous or you are a Putin stooge or are being paid in rubles. This is a very dangerous trend that we’re witnessing where to question the state now is being very publicly and consistently equated with being a traitor.
NC: That’s an old story.
JS: It’s an old story, but also with social media, and the fact that so many people now could have their comments spread around, and the cohesion of messaging that we’re seeing — it is an old story, Noam, of course, and you’ve written multiple books about this very phenomenon. What I’m getting at is that it now is just permeating every aspect of our culture, where to question those in power, which is the job of journalists, which is the job of thinking, responsible people in a democratic society, those things are being attacked as acts of treason, basically.
NC: As always has been the case. We have a dramatic example of it right in front of us: Julian Assange. A perfect example of a journalist who did the job of providing the public with information that the government wants suppressed. Information, some of it about US crimes but other things. So he’s been subjected to years of torture — torture — that’s the U.N. Repertory torture decision, now being held in a high-security prison, subjected to the possibility of extradition to the United States where he’ll be severely punished for daring to do what a journalist is supposed to do.
Now take a look at the way the media are reacting to this. First of all, they used everything WikiLeaks exposed, happily used it, made money out of it, improved their reputations. Are they supporting Assange, and this attack on the person who performed the honorable duty of a journalist and is now being tortured? Not that I’ve seen. They’re not supporting it. We’ll use what he did, but then we’ll join the jackals who are snapping at his feet. OK? That’s now. It goes far back.
You go back to 1968, the peak of the war in Vietnam, when real mass popular popular opinion was developing. When McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser for Kennedy and Johnson wrote a very interesting article in Foreign Affairs, a main establishment journal, in which he said: Well, there are legitimate criticisms of some of what we’ve done in Vietnam, like we made tactical errors, we should have done things a little differently. And then he said, there are also the wild men in the wings, who question our policies beyond tactical decisions — terrible people. We’re a democratic country, so we don’t kill them. But you got to get rid of these wild men in the wings — [that’s] 1968.
You go to 1981: U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick devises the notion of moral equivalence. He said: If you dare to criticize the United States, you’re guilty of moral equivalence. You’re saying we’re just like Stalin and Hitler. So you can’t talk about the United States.
There’s another term that’s used now. It’s: whataboutism. If you talk about what the US is doing right now, it’s whataboutism, you can’t do that. You’ve got to adhere firmly to the party line, strictly to the party line. We don’t have the kind of force that Hitler and Stalin had. But we can use obedience, conformity — a lot of things we’ve been talking about. And you get a sort of similar result — not new.
And yes, you’re right, it has to be combatted. We have to deal with what’s happening. And that includes what we are now doing to Ukraine, as we’ve discussed, both by inaction and action, we’re fighting to the last Ukrainian to quote Ambassador Freeman again. And it should be legitimate to say that if you care anything about Ukrainians. If you don’t care anything about them, fine, just silence.
JS: On that note, Noam Chomsky, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to be with us and for all of your work. I really appreciate you taking the time this evening.
NC: Good to talk to you.
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