Specter of an "ugly future"
January 5, 2001
MER WeekEnd Reading:
SPECTER OF AN "UGLY FUTURE"
Lofty, humanitarian goals like 'peace
and democracy'? No, America's primary
interest in the Middle East is effective
control of the world's most important
energy reserves, Noam Chomsky tells
By Yitzhak Laor
[Ha'aretz - Friday, January 5, 2000]:
The latest Noam Chomsky book to be published in Hebrew, "Powers and
Prospects," is a well thought-out collection of lectures given by the
renowned American linguist and political expert while he was in Australia, in
1995. The series opens with an interesting survey by the father of generative
grammar of the current research in the field, and continues with a survey of
world politics - from American hegemony throughout the world, to the
situation in the Middle East, to the condition of human rights in East Timor,
which Chomsky himself played a major role in bringing to the attention of the
The intellectual focal point of the political writings by Chomsky (who
regularly reads Israeli newspapers) is the knowledge that history is written
by the intellectual elites. Since most of them serve the authorities and the
centers of power, the writing of history is not only inaccurate, but one must
carefully study the events of recent years to try to save them from the
oblivion imposed on them.
In the long interview I conducted with him (only part of which appears here),
Chomsky referred again and again to examples from the American political
arena which emphasize the commemoration of certain events while erasing
others from memory. In this respect, Chomsky will probably be noted in the
intellectual history of the 20th century as the man who taught us how "to
read a newspaper," how "to read documents,"in a way that will prevent us from
surrendering to the self-evident.
As we speak, the Cable News Network is nattering on in the background for the
36th consecutive day about your presidential elections. It is quite funny,
"You are right to find it comical, though there are a few serious issues. The
most striking fact about the election is that it was a statistical tie. It is
highly unlikely that 100 million voters would divide 50-50 if some serious
issues were at stake, though that would be the anticipated outcome if, say,
people were asked to choose X or Y as president of Mars.
"About three-quarters of the population regarded the elections as largely a
game played by powerful moneyed interests, party bosses and the public
relations industry, which molded the candidates to act and speak in ways that
would garner votes, so that it was impossible to believe the candidates even
when they were intelligible. And that was rare. Most people were unable to
determine the stand of the candidates on leading issues, and not for lack of
interest or intelligence.
"More than half the population feels that it has little or no influence on
government, surpassing previous peaks by far. This has been increasingly the
case since the early Reagan years, and is a natural concomitant of the
'neo-liberal policies' that are designed to undermine functioning democracy
by shifting decision-making to an unaccountable private power, and to
marginalize a good part of the population.
"A second important fact is the disenfranchisement of a large part of the
Democratic voting bloc by incarceration. This program, too, was initiated 20
years ago along with the 'neo-liberal reforms.' President Clinton and Vice
President Gore have carried it further, adding about 600,000 new prisoners to
the 1.4 million when they took office.
"Twenty years ago, the United States was similar to other industrial
countries in locking up its population. By now, it is completely off the
spectrum, and holds a world record (per capita) among countries that have
meaningful statistics. The prisoners are disproportionately poor blacks and
Hispanics, groups that vote heavily for Democrats. Under the harsh U.S.
sentencing laws, not only are prisoners disenfranchised, but in many states
(including Florida) so are released prisoners, permanently. The numbers are
"As Human Rights Watch and academic studies have pointed out, Florida and
other swing states would have been won easily by Gore, and Congress would
have been Democratic for years, if it were not for the disenfranchisement
programs. These were pursued vigorously by Clinton and Gore, relying heavily
on draconian laws of the Reagan-Bush era and the 'war against drugs.'
"In these respects, too, the U.S. has departed sharply from the pattern of
most other industrial societies in the past 20 years. The discrepancies
reflect the more extreme commitment of Washington (and London) to a curious
form of 'neo-liberal fundamentalism.' One should, incidentally, bear in mind
that these policies are neither 'new' nor 'liberal.' The advocacy of free
markets follows the traditional dual pattern: market discipline for the poor
and defenseless, while the rich and privilege rely for protection on the
nanny state. These are important aspects of the election. The questions that
have received such passionate attention - odd-shaped ballots, dimpled chads,
and so on - are trivia of no significance.
"Given a statistical tie with numerical differences that fall well within the
expected 1-2 percent margin of error, the rational procedure would be to
select a candidate at random; say, by flipping a coin. That would not do,
however. The process must be conducted with appropriate solemnity, and a
pretense that issues of grand significance are at stake. Educated elites have
devoted great efforts to achieving this result, but with limited success
among the general population, it appears."
Your book describes the background leading up to the Oslo accord, but several
years have passed since you gave these lectures. The accord initially raised
high hopes here. Then, when the current Intifada broke out, many prefered to
become 'the distressed left' or even 'the offended left,' anything so as not
to have to re-think what they had already 'agreed upon' in the past. Could
you explain the American-Israeli context of the Oslo accord?
"The Oslo agreements did represent a shift in U.S.-Israeli policy. Both
states had by then come to recognize that it is a mistake to use the Israel
Defense Forces to run the territories.
"It is much wiser to resort to the traditional colonial pattern of relying on
local clients to control the subject population, in the manner of the British
in India, South Africa under apartheid, the U.S. in Central America, and
other classic cases. That is the assigned role of the Palestinian Authority,
which like its predecessors, has to follow a delicate path: It must maintain
some credibility among the population, while serving as a second oppressor,
both militarily and economically, in coordination with the primary power
centers that retain ultimate control.
"The long-term goal of the Oslo process was described accurately by [Foreign
Minister] Shlomo Ben-Ami shortly before he joined the Barak government: It is
to establish a condition of permanent neo-colonialist dependency. The
mechanisms have been spelled out explicitly in the successive interim
agreements; and more important, implemented on the ground."
What happened in Camp David this summer?
"Well, Israel's final status maps conformed closely to the projects it was
implementing in the territories, with U.S. support. The final settlement is
to divide the West Bank into four Palestinian enclaves, separated from one
another and from the (greatly expanded) Jerusalem region, and also separated
from Jordan. The enclaves are enclosed - essentially imprisoned - by Israeli
settlements and the supporting infrastructure that integrates them within
Israel. The maps indicated that Israel might later on permit some connection
between the northern and central enclaves and Jericho, though well to the
East. Something similar is apparently planned for Gaza."
Does the United States support the Barak plan?
"This is the U.S. conception of 'peace,' and Washington would be pleased to
have it realized. The background assumption, presumably, is that force will
ultimately prevail, that there is a limit to what flesh and blood can endure.
"On this assumption, which is perhaps realistic, there is every reason to
keep to the policies recommended in internal cabinet discussions by Moshe
Dayan 30 years ago: Israel should make it clear to the Palestinians that 'We
have no solution, you shall continue to live like dogs, whoever wishes may
leave, and we will see where this process leads.' That is entirely in accord
with U.S. policies throughout the world and, of course, the U.S. is breaking
no new ground in this respect."
How, then, would you describe the American interests in this area, if we
shake off the usual nonsense about 'peace and democracy,' like the peace and
democracy the U.S. is bringing to Columbia?
"The primary interest, uncontroversially, is effective control of the world's
most important energy reserves. These may be administered by what the
British, in their day in the sun, called an 'Arab facade' behind which
Britain would continue to rule. The facade must be weak and pliant; if the
ruling dictatorships challenge the dominant power, they can expect a violent
Okay, that was true during the Cold War, but that has ended already.
"For a long time, it was claimed publicly that the U.S. was defending the
region from the Russians, though internal documents told a different story.
But we no longer need debate the issue, since it has been conceded that the
conventional propaganda was false. Immediately after the fall of the Berlin
Wall, the Bush administration informed Congress that the U.S. still required
a huge Pentagon budget with intervention forces aimed primarily at the Middle
East, where the threat to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlin's
door.Or at Iraq's door; Saddam Hussein was then still an honored friend,
having committed only such minor transgressions as murdering hundreds of
thousands of Kurds, using chemical weapons, torturing dissidents, and so on.
The real threat, the White House explained, was the 'technological
sophistication' of Third World powers."
In other words, if the United States is not really interested in peace here,
because the conflict serves its interests, then the peace camp has no chance,
even if it wins an election some day.
"It would, I think, be hard to do anything in the Middle East that is not at
least consistent with perceived U.S. interests. For the past half-century,
the U.S. has regarded the Middle East as the most 'strategically important
area of the world' and the world's 'richest economic prize,' 'a stupendous
source of strategic power,' and on, and on, in the same vein. The dominant
concern has been to maintain effective control over the world's primary
energy reserves, which for the foreseeable future will be in the Gulf region.
"Israel and the Palestinians might pursue a separate path if it did not
interfere with U.S. interests - and that is, I think, not impossible. My own
feeling 30 years ago was that Israel was in a very strong position to move
toward some form of federal bi-nationalism in Cis-Jordan, sparing itself and
others enormous tragedies. And, though those opportunities have been lost, it
is not impossible that they could be recovered. The U.S. might not like it,
but would not interfere, I would expect. At the time, Israel preferred a
settlement based on force; that was, after all, explicit. That path happened
to conform very closely to U.S. policies. If Israelis continue to insist on
this framework, they will face, I fear, an ugly future, as will others in the
"Israelis should have no illusions on this score. If the U.S. decides to
abandon support for Israel, as it might, it will not be hampered by the
humanistic considerations that are professed or the moral posturing that is
adopted when convenient. The famous 'Israeli lobby' will be ineffective, and
will probably disappear, as it has in the past when Israel confronts U.S.
power rather than serving it. That has been the case even under Clinton, the
most pro-Israel of U.S. presidents (though George W. Bush may yet surpass
him): The recent Phalcon-China affair is a minor illustration."