Skip to content Skip to footer

The Empire of Chaos: An Interview With Noam Chomsky

Chomsky discusses the chaos and destabilization born of raining destruction upon other nations.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

US foreign policy in the 21st century has little to offer other than massive military power. Indeed, gone are the days when military might was used in order to “recreate the world in America’s image.” In the post-Cold War era, US military interventions take place in the absence of an overall strategic vision and with ideological justifications lacking force and conviction even among the United States’ traditional allies. Little wonder then that military interventions, always illegal and unjustifiable, end up accomplishing nothing more than the creation of black holes, while giving rise in turn to new and ever increasing violent terrorist organizations bent on spreading their own vision of social and political order.

In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Noam Chomsky reflects on the dynamics of US foreign policy in the 21st century and the implications of the policy of raining down destruction for world order. Chomsky also assesses the role of Russia’s involvement in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State and the apparent attraction it holds for many young Muslims from Europe, and offers a grim view about the future of US foreign policy.

CJ Polychroniou: US military interventions in the 21st century (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria) have proven totally disastrous, yet the terms of the intervention debate have yet to be redrawn among Washington’s warmakers. What’s the explanation for this?

Noam Chomsky: In part the old cliché: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The comparative advantage of the US is in military force. When one form of intervention fails, doctrine and practice can be revised with new technologies, devices, etc. There is a good review of the process from World War II to the present in a recent book by Andrew Cockburn, Kill Chain. There are possible alternatives, such as supporting democratization (in reality, not rhetoric). But these have likely consequences that the US would not favor. That is why when the US supports “democracy”; it is “top-down” forms of democracy in which traditional elites linked to the US remain in power, to quote the leading scholar of “democracy promotion,” Thomas Carothers, a former Reagan official who is a strong advocate of the process but who recognizes the reality, unhappily.

Some have argued that Obama’s wars are quite different in both style and essence from those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Is there any validity behind these claims?

Bush relied on shock-and-awe military violence, which proved disastrous for the victims and led to serious defeats for the US. Obama is relying on different tactics, primarily the drone global assassination campaign, which breaks new records in international terrorism, and Special Forces operations, by now over much of the globe. Nick Turse, the leading researcher on the topic, recently reported that US elite forces are “deployed to a record-shattering 147 Countries in 2015.”

Destabilization and what I call the “creation of black holes” is the principal aim of the Empire of Chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, but it is also clear that the US is sailing in a turbulent sea with no sense of direction and is, in fact, quite clueless in terms of what needs to be done once the task of destruction has been completed. How much of this is due to the decline of the US as a global hegemon?

The chaos and destabilization are real, but I don’t think that’s the aim. Rather, it is a consequence of hitting fragile systems that one does not understand with the sledgehammer that is the main tool, as in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As for the continuing decline of US hegemonic power (actually, from 1945, with some ups and downs), there are consequences in the current world scene. Take, for example, the fate of Edward Snowden. Four Latin American countries are reported to have offered him asylum, no longer fearing the lash of Washington. Not a single European power is willing to face US anger. That is a consequence of very significant decline of US power in the Western hemisphere.

However, I doubt that the chaos in the Middle East traces substantially to this factor. One consequence of the US invasion of Iraq was to incite sectarian conflicts that are destroying Iraq and are now tearing the region to shreds. The Europe-initiated bombing of Libya created a disaster there, which has spread far beyond with weapons flow and stimulation of jihadi crimes. And there are many other effects of foreign violence. There are also many internal factors. I think that Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn is correct in his observation that the Wahhabization of Sunni Islam is one of the most dangerous developments of the modern era. By now many of the most horrible problems look virtually insoluble, like the Syrian catastrophe, where the only slim hopes lie in some kind of negotiated settlement towards which the powers involved seem to be slowly inching.

Russia is also raining down destruction in Syria. To what end, and does Russia pose a threat to US interests in the region?

Russian strategy evidently is to sustain the Assad regime, and it is indeed “raining down destruction,” primarily attacking the jihadi-led forces supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and to an extent the US. A recent article in the Washington Post suggested that the high tech weapons provided by the CIA to these forces (including TOW anti-tank missiles) had shifted the military balance against Assad and were a factor in drawing the Russians in. On “US interest,” we have to be careful. The interests of US power and of the people of the United States are often quite different, as is commonly the case elsewhere as well. The official US interest is to eliminate Assad, and naturally Russian support for Assad poses a threat to that. And the confrontation not only is harmful, if not catastrophic, for Syria, but also carries a threat of accidental escalation that could be catastrophic far beyond.

Is ISIS a US-created monster?

A recent interview with the prominent Middle East analyst Graham Fuller is headlined, “Former CIA officer says US policies helped create IS.” What Fuller says, correctly I think, is that, “I think the United States is one of the key creators of this organization. The United States did not plan the formation of ISIS, but its destructive interventions in the Middle East and the war in Iraq were the basic causes of the birth of ISIS. You will remember that that the starting point of this organization was to protest the US invasion of Iraq. In those days it was supported by many non-Islamist Sunnis as well because of their opposition to the Iraq’s occupation. I think even today ISIS [now the Islamic State] is supported by many Sunnis who feel isolated by the Shiite government in Baghdad.” Establishment of Shiite dominance was one direct consequence of the US invasion, a victory for Iran and one element of the remarkable US defeat in Iraq. So in answer to your question, US aggression was a factor in the rise of ISIS, but there is no merit to conspiracy theories circulating in the region that hold that the US planned the rise of this extraordinary monstrosity.

How do you explain the fascination that a completely barbaric and savage organization like the Islamic State holds for many young Muslim people living in Europe?

There has been a good deal of careful study of the phenomenon, by Scott Atran among others. The appeal seems to be primarily among young people who live under conditions of repression and humiliation, with little hope and little opportunity, and who seek some goal in life that offers dignity and self-realization; in this case, establishing a utopian Islamic state rising in opposition to centuries of subjugation and destruction by Western imperial power. In addition, there appears to be a good deal of peer pressure – members of the same soccer club, and so on. The sharply sectarian nature of the regional conflicts no doubt is also a factor – not just “defending Islam” but defending it from Shiite apostates. It’s a very ugly and dangerous scene.

The Obama administration has shown little interest in re-evaluating the US relationship with authoritarian and fundamentalist regimes in places like Egypt and South Arabia. Is democracy promotion a completely sham element of US foreign policy?

There doubtless are people like Thomas Carothers, mentioned above, who really are dedicated to democracy promotion, and are within the government; he was involved in “democracy promotion” in the Reagan State Department. But the record shows quite clearly that it is scarcely an element in policy, and quite often democracy is considered a threat – for good reasons, when we look at popular opinion. To mention only one obvious example, polls of international opinion by the leading US polling agency (WIN/Gallup) show that the US is regarded as the greatest threat to world peace by a huge margin, Pakistan far behind in second place (presumably inflated by the Indian vote). Polls taken in Egypt on the eve of the Arab spring revealed considerable support for Iranian nuclear weapons to counterbalance Israeli and US power. Public opinion often favors social reform of the kind that would harm US-based multinationals. And much else. These are hardly policies that the US government would like to see instituted, but authentic democracy would give a significant voice to public opinion. For similar reasons, democracy is feared at home.

Do you anticipate any major changes in US foreign policy in the near future either under a Democratic or Republican administration?

Not under a Democratic administration, but the situation with a Republican administration is much less clear. The party has drifted far off the spectrum of parliamentary politics. If the pronouncements of the current crop of candidates can be taken seriously, the world could be facing deep trouble. Take, for example, the nuclear deal with Iran. Not only are they unanimously opposed to it but they are competing on how quickly to bomb Iran. It’s a very strange moment in American political history, and in a state with awesome powers of destruction, that should cause not a little concern.

It takes longer to read this sentence than it does to support our work.

We don’t have much time left to raise the $15,000 needed to meet Truthout‘s basic publishing costs this month. Will you take a few seconds to donate and give us a much-needed boost?

We know you are deeply committed to the issues that matter, and you count on us to bring you trustworthy reporting and comprehensive analysis on the real issues facing our country and the world. And as a nonprofit newsroom supported by reader donations, we’re counting on you too. If you believe in the importance of an independent, free media, please make a tax-deductible donation today!