The “war on terror” has now taken the form of a full-on global war campaign. Meanwhile, the actual causes of the rise and spread of murderous organizations such as ISIS remain conveniently ignored.
By C.J. Polychroniou, Truthout.org | Interview November 3, 2015
Following the Paris massacre in November, major Western countries like France and Germany are joining the United States in the fight against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. Russia has also hastened to join the club, as it has its own fears about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, Russia has been waging its own “war on terror” since the collapse of the Soviet state. At the same time, close allies of the US, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, are providing either direct or indirect support to ISIS, but this reality is also conveniently ignored by the Western forces fighting international terrorism. Only Russia dared recently to label Turkey as “accomplices of terrorists,” after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane for having allegedly violated Turkish airspace. (For the record, Turkish fighter jets have been violating Greek airspace with great frequency for years, violating it 2,244 times in 2014 alone.)
Does the “war on terror” make sense? Is it an effective policy? And how different is the current phase of the “war on terror” from the two previous phases that occurred under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s administrations, respectively? Moreover, who really benefits from the “war on terror”? And what’s the link between the US military-industrial complex and war making? World-renowned critic of US foreign policy Noam Chomsky offered his insights to Truthout on these issues in an exclusive interview with C.J. Polychroniou.
C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, thank you for doing this interview. I would like to start by hearing your thoughts on the latest developments on the war against terrorism, a policy that dates back to the Reagan years and was subsequently turned into a doctrine of [Islamophobic] “crusade” by George W. Bush with simply inestimable cost to innocent human lives and astonishingly profound effects for international law and world peace. The war against terrorism is seemingly entering a new and perhaps more dangerous phase as other countries have jumped into the fray, with different policy agendas and interests than those of the US and some of its allies. First, do you agree with the above assessment on the evolution of the war against terrorism and, if so, what are likely to be the economic, social and political consequences of a permanent global war on terror, for Western societies in particular?
Noam Chomsky: The two phases of the “war on terror” are quite different, except in one crucial respect. Reagan’s war very quickly turned into murderous terrorist wars, presumably the reason why it has been “disappeared.” His terrorist wars had hideous consequences for Central America, southern Africa and the Middle East. Central America, the most direct target, has yet to recover, one of the primary reasons – rarely mentioned – for the current refugee crisis. The same is true of the second phase, redeclared by George W. Bush 20 years later, in 2001. Direct aggression has devastated large regions, and terror has taken new forms, notably Obama’s global assassination (drone) campaign, which breaks new records in the annals of terrorism, and like other such exercises, probably generates dedicated terrorists more quickly than it kills suspects.
World opinion regards the US as the greatest threat to peace by a large margin.
The target of Bush’s war was al-Qaeda. One hammer blow after another – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and beyond – has succeeded in spreading jihadi terror from a small tribal area in Afghanistan to virtually the whole world, from West Africa through the Levant and on to Southeast Asia. One of history’s great policy triumphs. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has been displaced by much more vicious and destructive elements. Currently, ISIS (ISIL, Islamic State) holds the record for monstrous brutality, but other claimants for the title are not far behind. The dynamic, which goes back many years, has been studied in an important work by military analyst Andrew Cockburn, in his book Kill Chain. He documents how when you kill one leader without dealing with the roots and causes of the phenomenon, he is typically replaced very quickly by someone younger, more competent and more vicious.
One consequence of these achievements is that world opinion regards the US as the greatest threat to peace by a large margin. Far behind, in second place, is Pakistan, presumably inflated by the Indian vote. Further successes of the kind already registered might even create a broader war with an inflamed Muslim world while the Western societies subject themselves to internal repression and curtailing of civil rights and groan under the burden of huge expenses, realizing Osama bin Laden’s wildest dreams, and those of ISIS today.
In US policy discussions revolving around the “war on terror,” the difference between overt and covert operations has all but disappeared. Meanwhile the identification of terrorist groups and the selection of actors or states supporting terrorism not only appear to be totally arbitrary, but also in some cases the culprits identified have raised questions about whether the “war on terror” is in fact a real war against terrorism or whether it is a smokescreen to justify policies of global conquest. For example, while al-Qaeda and ISIS are undeniable terrorist and murderous organizations, the fact that US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar and even NATO member countries such as Turkey have actively supported ISIS is either ignored or seriously downplayed by both US policy makers and the mainstream media. Do you have any comments on this matter?
The same was true of the Reagan and Bush versions of the “war on terror.” For Reagan, it was a pretext to intervene in Central America, in what Salvadoran Bishop Rivera y Damas, who succeeded the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero, described as “a war of extermination and genocide against a defenseless civilian population.” It was even worse in Guatemala, and pretty awful in Honduras. Nicaragua was the one country that had an army to defend it from Reagan’s terrorists; in the other countries, the security forces were the terrorists.
In southern Africa, the “war on terror” provided the pretext to support South African crimes at home and in the region, with a horrendous toll. After all, we had to defend civilization from “one of the more notorious terrorist groups” in the world, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Mandela himself remained on the US terrorist list until 2008. In the Middle East, the “war on terror” construct led to support for Israel’s murderous invasion of Lebanon, and much else. With Bush, it provided a pretext for invading Iraq. And so it continues.
What’s happening in the Syrian horror story defies description.
What’s happening in the Syrian horror story defies description. The main ground forces opposing ISIS seem to be the Kurds, just as in Iraq, where they are on the US terrorist list. In both countries, they are the prime target of the assault of our NATO ally Turkey, which is also supporting the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra Front. The latter seems hardly different from ISIS, though they are having a turf battle. Turkish support for al-Nusra is so extreme that when the Pentagon sent in several dozen fighters it had trained, Turkey apparently alerted al-Nusra, which instantly wiped them out. Al-Nusra and the closely allied Ahrar al-Sham are also supported by US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and, it seems, may be getting advanced weapons from the CIA. It’s been reported that they used TOW anti-tank weapons supplied by the CIA to inflict serious defeats on the Assad army, possibly impelling the Russians to intervene. Turkey seems to be continuing to allow jihadis to flow across the border to ISIS.
Saudi Arabia in particular has been a major supporter of the extremist jihadi movements for years, not only with financing but also by spreading its radical Islamist Wahhabi doctrines with Koranic schools, mosques [and] clerics. With no little justice, Patrick Cockburn describes the “Wahhabization” of Sunni Islam as one of the most dangerous developments of the era. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have huge, advanced military forces, but they are barely engaged in the war against ISIS. They do operate in Yemen, where they are creating a major humanitarian catastrophe, and very likely, as before, generating future terrorists for us to target in our “war on terror.” Meanwhile, the region and its people are being devastated.
For Syria, the only slim hope seems to be negotiations among the many elements involved, excluding ISIS. That includes really awful people, like [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad, who are not going to willingly commit suicide and so will have to be involved in negotiations if the spiral to national suicide is not to continue. There are, finally, halting steps in this direction at Vienna. There is more that can be done on the ground, but a shift to diplomacy is essential.
Turkey’s role in the so-called global war against terrorism has to be seen as one of the most hypocritical gestures in the modern annals of diplomacy, and Vladimir Putin did not mince his words following the downing of the Russian jet fighter by labeling Turkey “accomplices of terrorists.” Oil is the reason why the US and its Western allies knowingly overlook certain Gulf nations’ support for terrorist organizations like ISIS, but what is the reason for neglecting to question Turkey’s support of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism?
Turkey has always been an important NATO ally, of great geostrategic significance. Through the 1990s, when Turkey was carrying out some of the worst atrocities anywhere in its war against its Kurdish population, it became the leading recipient of US arms (outside Israel and Egypt, a separate category). The relationship has occasionally been under stress, most notably in 2003, when the government adopted the position of 95 percent of the population and refused to join the US attack on Iraq. Turkey was bitterly condemned for this failure to understand the meaning of “democracy.” Paul Wolfowitz, whom the media hailed as the “idealist in chief” of the Bush administration, berated the Turkish military for allowing the government to pursue this shocking course, and demanded that they apologize. But generally the relationship has remained quite close. Recently, the US and Turkey reached an agreement on the war against ISIS: Turkey granted the US access to the Turkish bases close to Syria, and in return pledged to attack ISIS – but instead attacked its Kurdish enemies.
While this may not be a popular view with many people, Russia, unlike the US, seems to be restrained when it comes to the use of force. Assuming that you agree with this assumption, why do you think this is the case?
They are the weaker party. They don’t have 800 military bases throughout world, couldn’t possibly intervene everywhere the way the US has done over the years or carry out anything like Obama’s global assassination campaign. The same was true throughout the Cold War. They could use military force near their borders, but couldn’t possibly have carried out anything like the Indochina wars, for example.
France seems to have become a favorite target of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. What’s the explanation for that?
Actually many more Africans are killed by Islamic terrorism. In fact, Boko Haram is ranked higher than ISIS as a global terrorist organization. In Europe, France has been the major target, in large part for reasons going back to the Algerian war.
Islamic fundamentalist terrorism of the kind promoted by ISIS has been condemned by organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. What differentiates ISIS from other so-called terrorist organizations, and what does ISIS really want?
We have to be careful about what we call “terrorist organizations.” Anti-Nazi partisans used terror. So did George Washington’s army, so much so that a large part of the population fled in fear of his terror – not to speak of the [Indigenous community], for whom he was “the town destroyer.” It’s hard to find a national liberation movement that hasn’t used terror. Hezbollah and Hamas were formed in response to Israeli occupation and aggression. But whatever criteria we use, ISIS is quite different. It is seeking to carve out territory that it will rule and establish an Islamic caliphate. That’s quite different from others.
Following the Paris massacre of November 2015, Obama stated in a joint news conference with French President Hollande that “ISIS must be destroyed.” Do you think this is possible? If yes, how? If not, why not?
The West does of course have the capacity to slaughter everyone in the ISIS-controlled areas, but even that wouldn’t destroy ISIS – or, very likely, some more vicious movement that would develop in its place by the dynamic I mentioned earlier. One goal of ISIS is to draw the “crusaders” into a war with all Muslims. We can contribute to that catastrophe, or we can try to address the roots of the problem and help establish conditions under which the ISIS monstrosity will be overcome by forces within the region.
Foreign intervention has been a curse for a long time, and is likely to continue to be. There are sensible proposals as to how to proceed on this course, for example, theproposal by William Polk, a fine Middle East scholar with rich experience not only in the region but also at the highest levels of US government planning. It receives substantial support from most careful investigations of the appeal of ISIS, notably those of Scott Atran. Unfortunately, the chances that the advice will be heeded are slight.
The political economy of US warfare seems to be structured in such a way that wars appear to be almost inevitable, something which President Dwight Eisenhower was apparently aware of when he warned us in his farewell speech of the dangers of a military-industrial complex. In your view, what will it take to move the US away from militaristic jingoism?
It is quite true that sectors of the economy benefit from “militaristic jingoism,” but I do not think that is its main cause. There are geostrategic and international economic considerations of great import. The economic benefits – only one factor – were discussed in the business press in interesting ways in the early post-World War II period. They understood that massive government spending had rescued the country from the Depression, and there was much concern that if it was curtailed, the country would sink back into depression. One informative discussion, in Business Week (Feb. 12, 1949), recognized that social spending could have the same “pump-priming” effect as military spending, but pointed out that for businessmen, “there’s a tremendous social and economic difference between welfare pump-priming and military pump-priming.” The latter “doesn’t really alter the structure of the economy.” For the businessman, it’s just another order. But welfare and public works spending “does alter the economy. It makes new channels of its own. It creates new institutions. It redistributes income.” And we can add more. Military spending scarcely involves the public, but social spending does, and has a democratizing effect. For reasons like these, military spending is much preferred.
Pursuing this question about the link between US political culture and militarism a bit further, is the apparent decline of US supremacy on the global arena more or less likely to turn future US presidents into warmongers?
The US reached the peak of its power after World War II, but decline set in very soon, first with the “loss of China” and later with revival of other industrial powers and the agonizing course of decolonization, and in more recent years with other forms of diversification of power. Reactions could take various forms. One is Bush-style triumphalism and aggressiveness. Another is Obama-style reticence to use ground forces. And there are many other possibilities. The popular mood is no slight consideration, and one that we can hope to influence.
Should the left support Bernie Sanders when he caucuses with the Democratic Party?
I think so. His campaign has had a salutary effect. It’s raised important issues that are otherwise sidestepped and has moved the Democrats slightly in a progressive direction. Chances that he could be elected in our system of bought elections are not high, and if he were, it would be extremely difficult for him to effect any significant change of policies. The Republicans won’t disappear, and thanks to gerrymandering and other tactics they are likely at least to control the House as they have done with a minority of votes for some years, and they are likely to have a strong voice in the Senate. The Republicans can be counted on to block even small steps in a progressive – or for that matter even rational – direction. It’s important to recognize that they are no longer a normal political party.
As respected political analysts of the conservative American Enterprise Institute have observed, the former [Republican] Party is now a “radical insurgency” that has pretty much abandoned parliamentary politics, for interesting reasons that we can’t go into here. The Democrats have also moved to the right, and their core elements are not unlike moderate Republicans of years past – though some of Eisenhower’s policies would place him about where Sanders is on the political spectrum. Sanders, therefore, would be unlikely to have much congressional support, and little at the state level.
Needless to say, the hordes of lobbyists and wealthy donors would hardly be allies. Even Obama’s occasional steps in a progressive direction were mostly blocked, though there may be other factors involved, perhaps racism; it’s not easy to account for the ferocity of the hatred he has evoked in other terms. But in general, in the unlikely event that Sanders were elected, his hands would be tied – unless, unless, what always matters in the end: unless mass popular movements would develop, creating a wave that he could ride and that might (and should) impel him farther than he might otherwise go.
That brings us, I think, to the most important part of the Sanders candidacy. It has mobilized a huge number of people. If those forces can be sustained beyond the election, instead of fading away once the extravaganza is over, they could become the kind of popular force that the country badly needs if it is to deal in a constructive way with the enormous challenges that lie ahead.
The comments above relate to domestic policies, the areas he has concentrated on. His foreign policy conceptions and proposals seem to me to be pretty conventional liberal Democrat. Nothing particularly novel is proposed, as far as I can see, including some assumptions that I think should be seriously questioned.
One final question. What do you say to those who maintain the view that ending the “war on terror” is naive and misguided?
Simple: Why? And a more important question: Why do you think that the US should continue to make major contributions to global terrorism, under the guise of a “war on terror”?
Copyright, Truthout.org permission.
C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers and popular news websites. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Croatian, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.
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