Telling the truth about imperialism
David Barsamian interviews
Noam Chomsky, September 11, 2003
International Socialist Review,
Regime change is a new term in the lexicon. Kind of like change
of address. It sounds somewhat innocuous. It certainly sounds
a lot better than invasion, overthrow and occupation. The US.
is an old hand at regime change. We're in a year *at marks a couple
of anniversaries. Today k the 30th anniversary of the US-backed
coup in Chile. October 25 marks the 20th anniversary of the US.
invasion of Grenada. But I'm particularly thinking of regime change
in Iran. 50 years ago, in August 7953, Operation Ajax, carried
out by a CIA agent who was incidentally Teddy Roosevelt's grandson,
overthrew the conservative parliamentary democracy led by Mohammed
Mossadeq and restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne, where he
ruled for the next 25 years.
The issue was that the conservative nationalist parliamentary
government was attempting to take over its own oil resources.
These had been under the control of a British company originally
called Anglo-Persian, later called Anglo-Iranian, which had entered
into contracts with the rulers of Iran that were just pure extortion
and robbery. The Iranians got nothing and the British were laughing
all the way to the bank. Mossadeq had a long history as a critic
of this subordination of imperial policy. Popular outbursts compelled
the Shah to appoint him as prime minister, and he moved to nationalize
the industry, which makes perfect sense.
The British went completely berserk. They
refused to make any compromises. They wouldn't even come near
what the American oil companies had just agreed to in Saudi Arabia.
They wanted to continue just robbing the Iranians blind. And that
led to a tremendous popular uprising. Iran has a democratic tradition.
It had a majlis, parliament, which had always been suppressed.
But the Shah couldn't suppress it; the army tried and couldn't.
Finally a joint British-American coup did succeed in organizing
an overthrow of the regime, and restored the Shah to power. Then
comes 25 years of terror, atrocities, violence, finally leading
to the revolution in 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah.
Incidentally, one outcome of the coup
was that the United States took over from Britain about 40 percent
of the share in Iranian oil. It had been 100 percent British.
That wasn't actually the goal of the effort, it's just in the
normal course of events. But it was part of the general displacement
of British power by U.S. power in that region, and in fact, throughout
the world. Just sort of a normal reflection of the distribution
of power elsewhere. The New York Times had a nice editorial about
it, in which they praised the coup, and said, "Underdeveloped
countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the
heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes
berserk with fanatical nationalism." And it should teach
other Mossadeqs elsewhere in the world that they should be careful
before trying to do something like going "berserk" and
gaining control of their own resources, which of course are ours,
But your point is quite correct. Regime
change is normal policy-in fact, it's even perfectly conceded.
So, for example, maybe five years ago during the Clinton administration,
the European Union (EU) brought to the World Trade Organization
(WTO) a complaint against the United States, for the extended
economic warfare against Cuba, which extended to secondary boycotts
that are illegal under every possible interpretation of international
law and have been condemned by every relevant institution.
The EU brought it to the WTO as a restraint
of trade and the Clinton administration simply told them, Europe
is challenging policies of ours that go back | to 1959 and which
are aimed at overthrowing the government of Cuba (regime change)
and Europe has no business interfering in the internal affairs
of the United States like this. Actually, the State Department
or whoever | wrote that didn't know their own history | very well.
If you go back to the Kennedy | and Johnson administrations, there
was | a period of real frenzy about regime change, whidh almost
led to nuclear war. Internally, the reason given by U.S. intelligence
for regime change, overthrowing the Castro regime, was that the
very existence of the Castro regime was successful defiance of
a policy of the United States of 150 years, back to the Monroe
Doctrine. The policy of the United States is that we are the masters
of the hemisphere and the very existence of the Castro regime
is successful defiance of this, so of course we have to overthrow
it by a campaign of large-scale terror and economic warfare. What's
interesting about this particular remark is that it's shortly
after that terrorist campaign, which was quite serious, aimed
at regime change, and almost led the world to a terminal nuclear
war. It was a very close thing.
Right after the First World War, the British replaced the Turks
as the rulers of Iraq. They occupied the country, and faced as
one report says, anti-imperialist agitation...from the start.
A revolt became widespread." The British felt it wise to
put up a facade. Lord Curzon, the foreign secretary, said Britain
wanted an "Arab facade ruled and administered under British
guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as
possible, by an Arab staff." Just fast-forward today to Iraq,
with a 25-person ruling council appointed by the American viceroy,
Actually, Lord Curzon was very honest in those days. It was an
Arab facade, and then they went on, Britain would rule behind
a veil of "constitutional fictions" like "buffer
state" and various other terms, but it would basically be
an Arab facade. And that's the way Britain ran the whole region,
in fact, the whole empire. The idea is to have independent states,
but always weak governments that rely on the imperial power for
their survival. And they can rip off the population if they like
that's fine. But they have to be a facade, behind which the real
power rules. That's standard imperialism. Lord Curzon was simply
being a little more honest than most.
You can find plenty of examples. Paul
Bremer is one. There was a wonderful organization chart, published
in the New York Times. It might have been around May 7th, just
after Bremer was appointed. Unfortunately it's not in the archived
edition so you have to look back at the hard copy, but it had
a chart with something like 16 or 17 boxes. It's a standard organization
chart, somebody at the top and lines going down. At the top is
Paul Bremer, answering to the Pentagon, and then you go down various
lines and you get to various generals and diplomats, all either
U.S. or British. And each one of them has the name, the responsibility
of the office in boldface in a big box, and then you get down
to the bottom and there's a 17th box at the bottom, half the size
of the others, no boldface, no indication of responsibility. And
this says, "Iraqi Advisors." That's the facade. It was
a mistake to publish it-I suppose that's why they didn't archive
it, but that expresses the thinking, and Lord Curzon would have
felt it quite normal.
It's not clear that they can handle it
because, I should say, to my amazement, the occupation is not
succeeding. It takes real talent to fail in this. For one thing,
military occupations almost always work. The Nazis in occupied
Europe had very little trouble running the countries with collaborators.
Every country had plenty of collaborators who ran the place as
a facade and kept order and kept the population down. That's at
the extreme level of brutality in history. Furthermore, they were
under attack from the outside and the resistance was being directed
and supported from abroad, rather like the Nazis claimed: "terrorists
supported from abroad, directed from London." Even the most
grotesque propaganda usually has some element of truth.
Nevertheless, if it hadn't been for the
fact that they were crushed by overwhelming outside force, they
wouldn't have had any trouble running occupied Europe. The Russians
had very little problem running Eastern Europe through facades,
and again, that's another very brutal regime. In fact, if you
look through history, it usually works. The cases where there
are uprisings against imperial rule are pretty rare. It happens,
but it's not the norm.
Furthermore, this is an unusually easy
case. Here's a country that has been devastated by a decade of
murderous sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of people
and left the whole place in tatters and held together by Scotch
tape. Devastated by wars. Run by a brutal tyrant. It's hard not
to do better than that. The idea that you can't get a military
occupation to run under these circumstances, and of course, with
no support from outside for the resistance. None. I think it's
almost unimaginable. I imagine if we got a couple of people on
this floor together here at MIT they could probably figure out
how to get the electricity running. So it is an astonishing failure,
and it certainly surprises me. So their original planning, as
illustrated in that organization chart, amazingly doesn't look
like it's going to work. Which is why you get all this backtracking
about trying to get the UN to come in and pick up some of the
costs, and the domestic opposition. It's a big surprise to me.
I thought this would be a walkover.
Talk about another aspect of British imperialism. In the title
essay of Towards a New Cold War, which has just been reissued
by the New Press, you wrote about Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the
leaders of the opposition to British rule in India. He observed
that the ideology of British rule in India, "was that of
the herrenvolk and the Master Race, 'an idea that is 'inherent
in imperialism' and 'was proclaimed in unambiguous language by
those in authority' and put into practice as 'Indians as individuals
were subjected to insult, humiliation and contemptuous treatment."
Could you talk about that racism as being "inherent"
It's worth remembering that Nehru was pretty much an Anglophile
and, I believe, if I remember, that he was writing that from a
British jail during the Second World War. But yes, even for the
elite-he was from the elite Indian upper classes and quite British
in manner and style-the humiliation and degradation is one of
the hardest things to bear. And it's almost invariable. It's hard
to think of cases where you don't find it. He's right, it's "inherent"
in imperial rule, and I think you can understand the psychology.
When you've got your boot on somebody's neck, you can't just say,
"I'm doing this because I'm a brute." You have to say,
"I'm doing it because they deserve it. It's for their good.
That's why I've got to do it." They're "naughty children,"
as U.S. Ieaders described Latin Americans. They're "naughty
children" who have to be disciplined. Filipinos were described
in the same way. Therefore, you don't feel that you're humiliating
a child if you don't let it eat poison or something. But that's
inherent in the relation of domination, unless you have unusual
sensitivity among the ruling powers. You don't have that. They're
run by people like Donald Rumsfeld, not by people like your friendly
aunt. So his comment is quite accurate, and it's quite consistent.
It's hard to think of an exception to that. It's exactly what's
been going on in the Occupied Territories. For years. I mean,
one of the worst parts of the Israeli occupation has been the
constant humiliation and degradation at every moment. Same in
What about the drive for resources?
That'd very consistently a factor in domination. It's not always
the only factor. For example, the British desire to control Palestine
wasn't because of Palestine's resources. It was because of its
geostrategic position. So there are lots of factors that enter
into seeking domination and control, but resources are very commonly
a factor. Take, say, the U.S. takeover of Texas and around half
of Mexico about 150 years ago. That's usually not called a resource
war, but if you think about it, it was. Take a look back at the
Jacksonian Democrats, Polk and presidents of that time and other
people. What they were trying to do was exactly what Saddam Hussein
was accused of trying to do in 1990, except they were openly trying
to do it. They were trying to get a monopoly over the world's
major resource, which in those days was cotton. Cotton is what
fueled the Industrial Revolution just the way oil fuels the contemporary
industrial world. And the U.S. had a lot of cotton. One of the
goals in taking over particularly Texas, but also the rest, was
to ensure that the U.S. could gain a monopoly of cotton and bring
the British to their knees, because we would control the resource
on which they depended. They were the leading industrial power
and the United States was then a minor industrial power. But it
had this enormous resource that the British needed, so if we could
control it we'd bring them to their knees. And remember, Britain
was the great enemy at the time. It was the powerful force that
was preventing the United States from expanding north to Canada
and south to Cuba. So, yes, it was a resource war, in a deep sense,
though there were other factors too. And it's not unusual to find
that. There are other motives, of say, the Israeli takeover of
the West Bank. It's partially for the water resources that are
needed, but it goes way beyond that.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has been described as
one of the main architects of the attack on Iraq. He was in Singapore
last May and early June. In response to an audience question asking
why the United States went after Iraq instead of the truly dangerous
North Korea, Wolfowitz said that the most important difference
between North Korea and Iraq is that economically we just had
no "options" in Iraq. "The country floats on a
sea of oil."
That's part of it. The other part, which he knows very well, is
that Iraq was completely defenseless, whereas North Korea had
a deterrent. The deterrent is not nuclear weapons. The deterrent
is massed artillery at the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, aimed
at Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and at maybe tens of thousands
of American troops right south of the border. And unless the Pentagon
can figure out some way of taking out that artillery with precision-guided
weapons or something, North Korea has a deterrent. And Iraq had
nothing. They knew perfectly well that Iraq was defenseless. They
probably knew where every pocketknife was in every square inch
of Iraq by that time. So that's a second factor, but yes, the
first factor's right. On the other hand, North Korea also has
geostrategic significance, which is not unimportant the way the
world's shaping up now. It's not so much North Korea itself as
its position within Northeast Asia. The Northeast Asian region
is the most dynamic economic region in the world. It includes
two major industrial societies, Japan and South Korea, and China
is increasingly becoming an industrial society. It has enormous
resources. Siberia has all kinds of resources including oil. Northeast
Asia's got, I think, dose to a third of world gross domestic product,
way more than the United States. It has half the foreign exchange
of the world. It has enormous financial resources. And it's growing
very fast, much faster than any other region including the United
States. Its trade is increasing internally and it's connecting
to the Southeast Asian countries, sometimes called ASEAN plus
three: Southeast Asian countries plus China, Japan and South Korea.
And then, with the resource areas of Siberia, well, you know,
if you take a look at the geography, pipelines are being built
from the resource centers to the industrial centers. Some of them
would go, naturally, right to South Korea, but that means right
through North Korea. So pipelines through North Korea, if this
Trans-Siberian railway is extended, as is surely planned, it would
go probably the same route through North Korea to South Korea.
So North Korea happens to be in a fairly strategic position with
regard to this integrated area.
The U.S. is not particularly happy about
Northeast Asian economic integration, just as it's always been
very ambivalent about Europe. It has always been a concern that
Europe might go off on an independent course-it might be what
used to be called a "third force." And quite a lot of
policy planning, from the Second World War until the present,
reflects that concern. Actually, it was expressed, with his usual
crudity by Henry Kissinger, very well 30 years ago, in 1973. It
was called the "Year of Europe." Europe was finally
reconstituting and Kissinger gave an important address that is
called the "Year of Europe" address in which the main
theme was that European unification was wonderful but that Europe
shouldn't get too big for its britches. It should recognize that
it has only regional responsibilities within the overall framework
of order managed by the United States. And a lot of policy has
been designed to prevent Europe from moving off on its own. That's
a lot of the purpose of NATO, in fact. The same issues are arising
for Northeast Asia. So the world really has three major economic
centers: North America, Northeast Asia and Europe. In one dimension,
the military dimension, the United States is in a class by itself,
but not in the others.
You mentioned one national security adviser. Another was Zbigniew
Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, and today a frequent
talk show pundit. He contends that the main task facing the managers
of American Empire is "to prevent collusion and maintain
dependence among the vassals, keep tributaries pliant and protected,
and to keep the barbarians from coming together.
That's pretty frank. Lord Curzon would have been pleased. That's
basically correct. That's a cruder version of what Kissinger said.
I take back my insult. In international relations theory, that's
called "realism." You prevent groupings of powers from
getting together to oppose hegemonic power. That's part of the
reason why conservative international relations specialists were
deeply concerned and highly critical of U.S. policy even during
the Clinton years. People like Samuel Huntington, and Robert Jervis-who
was then-president of the American Political Science Association-and
other well-known realist scholars were warning that U.S. policies
are creating a situation in which much of the world would regard
the U.S. as what they called a "rogue state" and a threat
to their existence and would form coalitions against it. This
is in the Clinton years, this is not Bush. It's before the September
2002 Bush administration's National Security Strategy.
Joseph Schumpeter, who was an Austrian economist, in a i979 essay
called "The Sociology of Imperialisms," wrote: "There
was no comer of the known world where some interest was not alleged
to be in danger or under actual attack If the interests were not
Roman, they were those of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies,
then allies would be invented When it was utterly impossible to
contrive such an interest-why, then it was the national honor
that had been insulted. The fight was a/ways invested with an
aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded
neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world
was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome's
duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs."
So if one were to land like your fictive journalist from Mars
and view the United States today, and insert "the US."
in this Schumpeter essay every time he says "Rome,"
might you be coming close to some understanding of what's going
That's one reason why that quote's been reprinted-actually I've
just reprinted it too. Monthly Review used that quote in a fairly
recent issue in an editorial referring to Bush's National Security
Strategy, precisely because it is so apposite. You just change
the words. One of the standard arguments for going to war these
days is to maintain credibility. So there are cases where resources
aren't at stake. It's credibility that's at stake. Take, say,
the bombing of Serbia in 1999, this is Clinton again. What was
the point of that? The standard line is it was to prevent ethnic
cleansing, but to hold that, you just have to invert the chronology.
Uncontroversially, the ethnic cleansing followed the bombing and
furthermore, it was the anticipated consequence of it. So that
car;t have been the reason.
What was the reason? If you look carefully,
Clinton and Blair said at the time, and it's now conceded by many
in retrospect, that it was to maintain credibility. To make it
clear who's the boss. Serbia was defying the orders of the boss,
and you don't do that. And it was, again, defenseless, so you
don't lose anything, and you can make up a humanitarian case if
you like. You always can. So, that's the reason, to maintain credibility,
and there are plenty of other cases like this, in fact, it's very
common. It should be familiar to anyone who watches television
programs about the Mafia. A very large element of the structure
of the Mafia is that the Don has to make sure that people understand
that he's the boss. You don't cross him. You may send out your
goons to beat somebody to a pulp, not because you want his resources
but because he's standing up to you. That's back to Cuba again.
It was Castro's successful defiance of the United States that
made it necessary to carry out terrorist actions aimed at regime
change. You don't defy the master, and everyone else has to understand
that. If the rumor is spread around that you can get away with
defying the master, you're in trouble.
You have carefully examined declassified State Department documents
over *e years, and I was wondering if you could talk about whether
you see any persistent themes and patterns Let me just refer to
one that you've cited on a number of occasions, State Department
Policy Study 23, issued in 1948, which was apparently written
by George Kennan: "The US. has about 50 percent of the world's
wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation
we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real
task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships
which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without
positive detriment to our national security."
That's a rather frank statement. It's an interesting document,
because that whole document, if you look at it, was from the State
Department planning staff, which Kennan headed. And it kind of
laid out plans, ideas, about how various parts of the world should
fit into this general strategy. This particular comment happened
to be specifically about Asia, but it's general and it's not unlike
Schumpeter or British imperialism or anything else. That's almost,
well, to quote Nehru again, it's just inherent in domination.
Kennan was to be respected for having said it but it's too bad
that he kept it secret instead of telling people. Remember that
he was at the soft humanist end of the planning sector. In fact,
he was thrown out a couple of years later because he was considered
not harsh enough, and replaced by Paul Nitze, who was much tougher.
A few years before Kennan's document, the US. developed something
called the "Grand Area Strategy." What was that about?
This is quite interesting. There's only one good book about this,
by Laurence Shoup and William Minter, called Imperial Brain Trust.
It's not an official government policy. These were programs run
by the Council on Foreign Relations with the participation of
the State Department, from 1939 to 1945, planning the postwar
world. It began when the Second World War began and went on. They're
quite interesting. One reason they're interesting is because the
policies that were actually carried out are very similar to those
they discussed. Not surprisingly, it was many of the same people
in charge and the same interests represented. It's a book well
worth reading. It's been bitterly attacked, naturally, which is
a pretty good sign that it's worth reading. And no reviews and
that sore of thing...it's kept secret. There's very little scholarship
on this, but it's really important material. It's obvious from
just taking a look at who was doing it. It actually reads rather
like the National Security Strategy.
In some recent publications I've compared
the statements, and this is kind of Roosevelt-style liberals,
remember, at the opposite end of the planning spectrum. It says
the United States will have to emerge from the war as the world
dominant power and will have to make sure there is no challenge
to its dominance anywhere, ever. And it will have to do this by
a program of complete rearmament, which will leave the United
States in position of overwhelming strength in the world. It goes
on like that. In the early stages of the war the "Grand Area"
was sup posed to be the non-German world. They assumed in the
early stages that Nazi Germany would partially win the war, at
least it would control most of Europe. So there would be a German
world, and then the question was, What about the non-German world?
And they said: That has to be turned into what they called a "Grand
Area" run by the United States. Then they went through a
geopolitical and geostrategic analysis of whatever resources we'd
need, and so on and so forth.
The Grand Area would include, at a minimum,
the entire Western Hemisphere, the Far East and the former British
Empire. That's the early stage of the war. As it became clear
by 1943 roughly, that Germany was going to be defeated, mainly
by the Russians, they began extending the policies beyond, to
try to hold on to as much of Eurasia as possible, assuming there
wouldn't be a German world. And those policies later extend into
the policy planning carried out in the early postwar period, and
in many respects right until today. These are pretty natural and
sensible plans of analysts who are thinking in terms of world
domination for the interests that they represent. Of course, they
will say, and probably believe, that they're just laboring for
the benefit of the ordinary person, but the Romans that Schumpeter
was talking about would have said the same thing and also believed
Talk about America and how we benefit from empire, if I can use
the collective pronoun. William Appleman Williams was an historian
who wrote a book called Empire as a Way of Life. In it he writes,
"Very simply, Americans of the 20th century liked empire
for the very same reasons their ancestors had favored it in the
18th and 19th century. It provided them with renewable opportunities,
wealth and other benefits and satisfactions, including a psychological
sense of well-being and power." What do you think of Williams'
I think he's correct about the United States, but remember that
the United States was not a normal empire in the European style,
so it wasn't like the British Empire. The English colonists who
came to the United States didn't do what they did in India. They
didn't create a facade of the native population behind which they
would rule. They largely wiped out the native population. That's
rather different. So the indigenous population of what's now the
United States was "exterminated," to use the word that
the founding fathers used. Not totally, but that was what was
considered the right thing to do. They replaced them and it became
a kind of settler state, not an imperial state. And the expansion
over the national territory was that way all along, including
the taking over of large parts of Mexico.
Back in the 1820s, one of the earliest
issues in U.S. foreign policy was the desire to take Cuba. It
was assumed in the 1 820s by Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy
Adams and others that Cuba was the next step in expansion. But
the British were in the way. The British fleet was much too powerful,
and they couldn't take Cuba at the time. John Quincy Adams made
a famous statement, he was secretary of state at the time, in
which he said: We should back off and Cuba will fall into our
hands like a "ripe fruit" by the "laws of political
gravitation." Meaning that sooner or later, we'll become
more powerful, the British will become weaker, the deterrent will
be gone and we'll be able to pluck the ripe fruit. Which happened
in 1898 under the guise of liberation.
But every expansion up until the Second
World War was not establishing traditional colonies. Hawaii was
taken over from its own population at the same time, 1898, stolen
by force and guile. But then the native population was pretty
much replaced, they weren't colonized. Again, not totally. They're
still there, but it became essentially taken over rather than
colonized. The Philippines was different. The Philippines was
more like a colony. So Williams' comments are correct but I think
they refer to a different sort of imperial system. If you look
at the traditional empires, say, the British Empire, it's not
so clear that the population of Britain gained from it. It's really
a very difficult topic to study, a kind of cost-benefit analysis
of empire. But there have been a couple of attempts to study it.
And for what they're worth, the general range of conclusions is
that the costs and the benefits probably pretty much balanced
Empires are costly. Running Iraq is not
cheap. Somebody's paying. Somebody's paying the corporations that
destroyed Iraq and the corporations that are rebuilding it. They're
getting paid by the American taxpayer in both cases. So we pay
them to destroy the country, and then we pay them to rebuild it.
Those are gifts from U.S. taxpayer to U.S. corporations, indirectly,
and happen to affect Iraq.
I don't understand how did corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel
contribute to the destruction of Iraq?
Who pays Halliburton and Bechtel? The U.S. taxpayer. The military
system that bombed Iraq destroyed it. Who paid for that? The same
taxpayers. So first you destroy Iraq, then you rebuild it. It's
a transfer of wealth from the general population to narrow sectors
of the population. Even if you look at the famous Marshall Plan,
that's pretty much what it was. It's talked about as an act of
"unimaginable benevolence." But whose benevolence? It's
the benevolence of the American taxpayer. Of the $13 billion of
Marshall Plan aid, about $2 billion went right to the U.S. oil
companies. That was part of the effort to shift Europe from a
coal-based to an oil-based economy, and parts of it l would be
more dependent on the United States. It had plenty | of coal.
It didn't have oil. So there's two billion of the 13.
You look at the rest of it, very little
of that money left the United States. It goes from one pocket
to another. If you look more closely, the Marshall Plan aid to
France just about covered the costs of the French effort to reconquer
Indochina. So the U.S. taxpayer wasn't rebuilding France. They
were paying the French to buy American weapons to crush the Indochinese.
Partially the same was true about the Marshall Plan aid to Holland,
in the early stage, and what it was doing in Indonesia. It's a
complex flow of aid and benefits.
But, going back to the British Empire,
the studies of it have suggested that the costs to the British
people may have been about on a par with the benefits that the
British people got from it. However, it's a transfer internally.
To the guys who were running the East India Company: fantastic
wealth. To the British troops who were dying out in the wilderness
somewhere: a serious cost. So it's a part of class war internally.
And to a large extent that's the way empires work. A big element
of it is internal class war.
It may be somewhat easy to measure the cost in lives, number of
soldiers killed, and how much money is spent. How does one measure
or even talk about moral degradation?
You can't give measures to that, but it's very real and very significant.
That's part of the reason why imperial systems or any system of
domination, even a patriarchal family, always has a cover of benevolence.
We're back to the racism again. Why do you have to present yourself
as somehow doing it for the benefit of the people you're crushing?
Well, otherwise you have to face the moral degradation. And one
of the ways of covering for it is to say, "Well, I'm really
an altruist working for the benefit of all." A typical Hollywood
joke was about the corporate executive who was laboring day and
night for the benefit of the ordinary person. If we're honest
about it, human relations are often like that. And in imperial
systems, almost always.
It's hard to find an imperial system where
the intellectual class didn't laud its benevolence. That's normal.
Even the worst monsters. When Hitler was dismembering Czechoslovakia
it was done with wonderful rhetoric about bringing peace to the
ethnic groups who were in conflict, making sure they could all
live happily together under German supervision, which was benign.
You really have to labor to find an exception to that. And of
course it's true in the United States.
Mark Twain is known for writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he was a staunch opponent
of US. wars of aggression. A century ago, he was involved in something
called the Anti-lmperialist League. He wrote in The Mysterious
Stranger: "Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, puffing
the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will
be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently
study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and
thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just,
and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process
of grotesque self-deception." Why is that aspect of Mark
Twain almost totally occluded?
That's an interesting story. For the last years of his life one
of his main activities was vigorous involvement in opposition
to the Philippine War. Twain has wonderful anti-imperialist essays.
But you don't find reference to them. I think the first general
publication of them was in a book, Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire,
edited by Jim Zwick about 10 years ago. Syracuse University Press
published a collection of his anti-imperialist essays. If my memory
is correct, the introduction by Zwick says that the standard biographies
don't include this material, although it wasn't secret. Why? The
question answers itself. You don't want people to explode the
aura of benevolence in which we clothe ourselves.
You mentioned the Mafia Don earlier. Major General Smedley Butler
of the US. Marine Corps was a highly-decorated officer, he won
the Congressional Medal of Honor not once but twice. He said,
"I've spent 33 years...being a high class muscleman for Big
Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer
for Capitalism.... I helped purify Nicaragua, I helped make Mexico...safe
for American oil interests, I helped in the rape of half a dozen
Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street....
I was rewarded with honors, medals, promotions...l might have
given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was operate
a racket in three city districts. The Marines operated on three
Smedley Butler in his later years came out with some very honest
and cutting comments. The honors stopped. He was also either threatened
with being kicked out of the Marine Corps, or may have actually
been expelled, for opposing U.S. support for Mussolini. I think
Henry Stimson may have been responsible for that, because at the
time, the U.S. Ioved Mussolini, thought he was great, but apparently
Butler was opposed.
Traditionally if you used the word "imperialism" and
attached the word "American" in front of it, you were
immediately dismissed as a member of some far left fringe. That
has undergone a bit of a transformation in the last few years.
Let's just take Michael Ignatieff, for one. Son of a Canadian
diplomat, he's at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
where he is Carr Professor of Human Rights Policy. He writes in
a New York Times Magazine cover story on July 28, 2002, "America's
entire war on terrorism is an exercise in imperialism." Then
he adds, "Imperialism used to be the white man's burden,"
echoing Kipling. "This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism
doesn't stop being necessary just because it becomes politically
incorrect." On January S, 2003, in yet another cover story
in the New York Times Magazine, he writes, "America's empire
is not like the empires of times past, built on colonies, conquests
and the white man's burden.... The 21st century imperium is a
new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite,
a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights,
and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the
world has ever known." And he has a new book out, called
Of course, the apologists for every other imperial power have
said the same thing. So you can go back to John Stuart Mill, one
of the most outstanding Western intellectuals, now we're talking
about the real peak of moral integrity and intelligence. He defended
the British Empire in very much those words. John Stuart Mill
wrote the classic essay on humanitarian intervention. Everyone
studies it in law schools. What he says is, Britain is unique
in the world. It's unlike any country before it. Other countries
have crass motives and seek gain and so on, but the British act
only for the benefit of others. In fact, he said, Our motives
are so pure that Europeans can't understand us. They heap "obloquy"
upon us and they seek to discover crass motives behind our benevolent
actions. But everything we do is for the benefit of the natives,
the barbarians. We want to bring them free markets and honest
rule and freedom and all kinds of wonderful things. Today's version
is just illustrating Marx's comment about tragedy being repeated
The timing of Mill's comments is interesting.
This was around 1859, and it was right after an event that in
British terminology is called the "Indian Mutiny," meaning
those barbarians raised their heads. It was a rebellion against
British rule, and the British put it down with extreme violence
and brutality. Mill certainly knew about this. It was all over
England, it was all over the press. The old-fashioned conservatives
like Richard Cobden condemned it harshly, just like Senator Robert
Byrd condemns what's going on today. The real conservatives are
different from the ones that call themselves that. But Mill, right
in the midst of that, wrote about this picture of Britain as an
angelic power, and I think you'd find it hard to find an exception
I'm surprised that Ignatieff is not aware
that he's just repeating a very familiar rhetoric. And it's true,
even in internal records, when people are talking to themselves.
A lot of Soviet archives are coming out, basically being sold
to the highest bidder like everything else in Russia. It's kind
of interesting to see that they talk to each other the same way
they talk in public. So, for example, you go back to 1947 or so,
and Gromyko and those guys are talking to each other and saying
things like, We have to protect democracy. We have to intervene
to protect democracy from the forces of fascism, which are everywhere,
and democracy is surely the highest value, so we've got to intervene
to protect it. And he's talking about the "people's democracies."
Well, he believed it probably as much as Ignatieff believes what
he is saying.
Ignatieff seems to be a particular favorite of the New York Times.
In the New York Times Magazine of September 7, 2003, "Why
Are We In Iraq?" is the title of his article. He writes,
"New rules of intervention, proposed by the US. and abided
by it, would end the canard that the US., not its enemy, is the
rogue state." You have a book called Rogue States. What is
Ignatieff getting at here, that this is a canard that the US.
is a rogue state?
Actually, I borrowed the phrase from Samuel Huntington. In Foreign
Affairs, the main establishment journal, he described how, in
the eyes of much of the world, the United States is regarded as
"the rogue superpower" and the "greatest external
threat" to their existence. That's in the context of criticizing
Clinton's policies leading to the building up of coalitions against
If we define "rogue state" in
terms of any kind of principles, like violation of international
law, or aggression, or atrocities, or human rights violations,
and so on, the U.S. qualifies rather well, as you would expect
of the most powerful state in the world. Just as Britain did.
Just as France did. And every one of them wrote the same kind
of garbage that you're quoting from Ignatieff. So, France was
carrying out a "civilizing mission" when the minister
of war was saying they were going to have to exterminate the natives
in Algeria, which they proceeded to try to do. Even the Nazis.
You go to the absolute depths and you'll find the same sentiments
When the Japanese fascists were conquering
China and carrying out huge atrocities like the Nanking Massacre,
the rhetoric behind it brings tears to your eyes. They were creating
an "earthly paradise" in which the peoples of Asia would
work together, and Japan would sacrifice itself for their benefit
so they would all have peace and prosperity, and Japan would protect
them from the Communist bandits while they move on to the earthly
paradise, and so on. Again, I'm a little surprised that some editor
at the New York Times, or a dean at Harvard doesn't see that it
is just a little odd to be repeating what's been said over and
over again by the worst monsters. Why is it different now?
Notice, by the way, that one of the great
benefits of being a respectable intellectual, is you never need
any evidence for anything you say. So you go through those articles
and try to find some evidence to support the conclusions. It's
not that it's not there, it's just that it would be ridiculous
to put it in. It's as if you wrote that two and two is four, and
then somebody said, "Where's your evidence?" In order
to make it to the peak of respectability, you have to understand
that it's faintly absurd even to ask for evidence for the praise
of those with power. It's just automatic. Of course they're magnificent.
Maybe they made some mistakes in the past, but now they're magnificent.
And to look for evidence of that is like looking for evidence
for the truths of arithmetic. So there never is any.
Thomas Friedman, in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree writes:
"The hidden hand of the market will never work without a
hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Doug/ass....
And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's
technologies to flourish is called the US. Army, Air Force, Navy
and Marine Corps." Now that's a pretty candid statement from
the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist.
Though I suspect if you quizzed him on your program, he would
say, "Well, but that's for the good." Because Silicon
Valley and the trade, it's just helping people, and unfortunately
you've got to keep the barbarians under control, we're back to
the Brzezinski quote you mentioned before. In fact, Mill and everyone
else says the same thing. We've got to keep the barbarians away
so everybody can benefit from these wonders that we're bringing
to them, like Silicon Valley, which of course, we're developing
for their benefit, or maybe by some invisible hand or something
like that. So therefore it's all, again, just pure benevolence.
Do you see some echoes of the 1960s and the so-called discussions
and debate about US. intervention in Indochina and what's going
on today? Senator Joseph Biden and other Democrats, as well as
articles in Foreign Affairs, which is published by the Council
on Foreign Relations, the New York-based establishment think tank
are now talking about how they botched it. There was poor planning.
They should have seen what would be needed, and they didn't have
enough translators in place.
It's as you say, in part a replica of the 1960s. It's worth remembering
that among educated elites, among intellectuals and planners,
there was almost never any criticism of the Vietnam War. Even
at the peak of popular protest, 1969, maybe 70 percent of the
population described the war as fundamentally wrong and immoral,
not a mistake. But among educated sectors you almost never heard
that. The most that could be said is "it's a mistake, bad
planning, should have had more translators, we didn't understand
anything about the Vietnamese, hubris and so on and so forth."
And so, "Do it right next time," in other words, but
not that there was anything wrong with doing it. Which is why,
as the Vietnam War has been reconstructed, in American intellectual
culture, the U.S. turns out to be the victim. The U.S. is the
victim of the Vietnamese. Literally.
The Vietnamese Air Force carpet bombed the United States.
Jimmy Carter, for whom the "soul of our foreign policy"
was human rights, piety and so on, was asked in a news conference
whether the U.S. owes anything to Vietnam after what happened,
and he said that we owe them no debt because "the destruction
was mutual." Do a database search and see if anybody commented
When George Bush Number One-who was kind
of an old-fashioned conservative, not a hawk and not a dove, just
kind of a mainstream moderate-was in office, he told the Vietnamese,
Of course we can never forget what you did to us, but we're willing
to let bygones be bygones. We don't insist on retribution, if
you will pay proper attention to the only moral issue that's left
after the war, namely the remains of Americans missing in action.
That was a particularly interesting comment because of its placement.
It happened to appear on the front page of the New York Times
just next to another column that was on Japan's strange unwillingness
to face up to what it had done in Asia. The article offered an
elaborate etymological study of some of the words that the Japanese
use when they refer to their crimes in Asia, and how they don't
have quite the right connotations, and so on and so forth. Right
next to it is George Bush saying, The only moral issue after the
war in which a couple of million of people were killed and the
country was devastated and they're still dying from chemical warfare,
is: What about the bones of our pilots?
George Bush the First, when he was running for president in 1988,
was asked to comment on the shooting down of an Iranian civilian
airliner over international airspace killing all 290 passengers.
He said, "I will never apologize for the United States, I
don't care what the facts are."
That was just franker than others. Ignatieff says we don't make
mistakes, or if we made mistakes they were in the past.
But the intentions are always noble.
The intentions are noble. In fact, what happened after the shooting
down of the airliner? The captain of the ship got an award, some
high medal, the ship when it came back, the USS Vincennes, was
greeted in the port with great applause and so on. Actually, the
U.S. Naval Institute Journal published an interesting article
by another commander, David Carlson, who was commander of a nearby
vessel, and he said he couldn't understand it. He said that they
saw this Iranian commercial airliner coming up right in international
airspace, and the USS Vincennes focused its high tech radar system
on it and was moving forward to shoot it down, and they couldn't
understand what these guys were doing. He said they called the
Vincennes the "Robo Cruiser," or some such term. That's
in the U.S. Naval Institute proceedings.
In the discussions about the attack of
Iraq and the occupation, it seems that if these weapons of mass
destruction are ever found, then that would eliminate all the
criticism. There's no principled dissent in terms of international
law, the Nuremberg Tribunal principles or the UN Charter. Are
you surprised that none of the allegations that were made, from
drones of death to mobile chemical labs have been verified?
Very surprised. I have a feeling if you looked at Boulder High
School, if somebody started digging out in the back fields, you'd
probably find stuff from some chemistry or biology lab that could
in theory be used to make chemical and biological weapons. The
fact that they haven't found anything is mind-boggling. I took
for granted they must have the facilities. But there are plenty
of things that aren't discussed, like for example, why didn't
the Iraqis overthrow Saddam Hussein? Well, if you destroy a society
and you force the population to become dependent on a tyrant,
they don't have any basis for overthrowing him.
If you look at other cases, there's very
good reason to agree with the Westerners who know Iraq best, and
are cut out of the American press for that reason: Denis Halliday
and Hans von Sponeck, the two UN administrators. They had hundreds
of people going around Iraq, they were getting information from
all over the place. They are very knowledgeable. I think they
probably know Iraq better than any Westerners. They both resigned
in protest over the sanctions, which Halliday called "genocidal."
They're very respected European UN diplomats with lots of experience.
They said the sanctions are destroying the society. They're strengthening
the tyrant They're compelling people to rely on him. He was a
brutal tyrant, but he ran a very efficient food distribution system
and people just relied on him for survival. So you didn't get
what you got in other places.
Actually, if you look at the record of
the guys who are in Washington right now, at least some people
know that they supported Saddam Hussein through his worst atrocities.
But he wasn't the only one. There's quite a rogues gallery that
they supported. Like take Ceausescu in Romania, he was comparable
to Saddam Hussein. He was a monstrous tyrant. The Reagan and Bush
I administrations supported him to the last minute, when he was
overthrown from within by Romanians. Now they take credit for
having overthrown him. Mobutu was another. Mobutu, another killer,
was the first person invited to the Bush I White House. They supported
Suharto, Marcos and Duvalier to the very end. All these guys were
overthrown from within, despite enormous U.S. support. There's
no reason to think that that might not have happened with Saddam
So that's a question that's overlooked.
Why were we supporting Saddam Hussein right up until the invasion
of Kuwait? Why wouldn't we let the Iraqis overthrow him? There's
another simple question, too. You don't know, when you invade
a country, what's going to happen. There could have been a humanitarian
catastrophe. The fact that you're willing to invade a country
and risk that puts you on the same level as say, Khrushchev, when
he put nuclear missiles in Cuba. It's criminal lunacy. The fact
that the worst didn't happen doesn't make it less criminal lunacy.
It's still a criminal lunacy. It holds in this case, too.
Rahul Mahajan, in his new book Full Spectrum Dominance poses the
question: If Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and
he faced annihilation, and he didn't use these weapons that he
was alleged to have, then under what circumstances would he use
U.S. analysts, including the CIA and intelligence agencies, who
all assumed that he must have some weapons of mass destruction
capacity, as I did and everyone did, they all predicted that he's
not going to use them, but if he's driven to desperation, then
he will use them. That's another risk that Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld
and the rest were willing to take They were willing to drive Saddam
Hussein to the point where he might use weapons of mass destruction.
Just as they were willing to take the risk that there could be
a huge humanitarian catastrophe. All of these are criminal lunacy.
Your new book is titled Hegemony or Survival. Do you understand
hegemony in the same way as imperialism, as a system of domination?
Imperialism is one specific form of domination. There are plenty
of other forms. These terms don't have precise meanings. But hegemony
is much more general.
Antonio Gramsci, who helped popularize
the term "hegemony," wrote in I925, "A main obstacle
to change is the reproduction by the dominating forces of elements
of the hegemonic ideology. It's an important and urgent task to
develop alternative interpretations of reality." How does
someone develop "alternative interpretations of reality,"
as Gramsci suggests?
I respect Gramsci a lot, but I think it's possible to paraphrase
that comment, namely, just tell the truth. Instead of repeating
ideological fanaticism, dismantle it, try to find out the truth,
and tell the truth. Does that say anything different? It's something
any one of us can do. Remember, intellectuals internalize the
conception that they have to make things look complicated, otherwise
what are they around for? But it's worth asking yourself how much
of it really is complicated. Gramsci is a very admirable person,
but take that statement and try to translate it into simple English.
Is it complicated to understand, or to know how to act?
David Barsamian is the director and producer
of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He recently published
Culture and Resistance, a book of interviews with Edward Said.
Imperialism / Neocolonialism