Noam Chomsky: America paved the way for ISIS
The famed linguist and philosopher on the conflict in Iraq, Israel and the myriad dangers of U.S. foreign policy
Jacobin is happy to feature an interview with journalist David Barsamian and Professor Noam Chomsky. In it, Chomsky explains the roots of ISIS and why the United States and its allies are responsible for the group’s emergence. In particular, he argues that the 2003 invasion of Iraq provoked the sectarian divisions that have resulted in the destabilization of Iraqi society. The result was a climate where Saudi-funded radicals could thrive
The interview also touches on Israel’s most recent massacre in the Gaza Strip, putting it in the context of the vital role Israel has always played for the United States. Chomsky then turns to today’s racist scapegoating of Guatemalan immigrants, tracing the conditions that lead them to leave their homes to the Reagan administration’s brutal destruction of the country.
Finally, Chomsky shares his thoughts on the growing movement for climate justice and why he thinks it is the most urgent of our time. The full exchange will be broadcast by Alternative Radio.
There are few voices more vital to the Left than Professor Chomsky’s. We hope you read and share the interview widely.
The Middle East is engulfed in flames, from Libya to Iraq. There are new jihadi groups. The current focus is on ISIS. What about ISIS and its origins?
There’s an interesting interview that just appeared a couple of days ago with Graham Fuller, a former CIA officer, one of the leading intelligence and mainstream analysts of the Middle East. The title is “The United States Created ISIS.” This is one of the conspiracy theories, the thousands of them that go around the Middle East.
But this is another source: this is right at the heart of the US establishment. He hastens to point out that he doesn’t mean the US decided to put ISIS into existence and then funded it. His point is — and I think it’s accurate — that the US created the background out of which ISIS grew and developed. Part of it was just the standard sledgehammer approach: smash up what you don’t like.
In 2003, the US and Britain invaded Iraq, a major crime. Just this afternoon the British parliament granted the government the authority to bomb Iraq again. The invasion was devastating to Iraq. Iraq had already been virtually destroyed, first of all by the decade-long war with Iran in which, incidentally, Iraq was backed by the US, and then the decade of sanctions.
They were described as “genocidal” by the respected international diplomats who administered them, and both resigned in protest for that reason. They devastated the civilian society, they strengthened the dictator, compelled the population to rely on him for survival. That’s probably the reason he wasn’t sent on the path of a whole stream of other dictators who were overthrown.
Finally, the US just decided to attack the country in 2003. The attack is compared by many Iraqis to the Mongol invasion of a thousand years earlier. Very destructive. Hundreds of thousands of people killed, millions of refugees, millions of other displaced persons, destruction of the archeological richness and wealth of the country back to Sumeria.
One of the effects of the invasion was immediately to institute sectarian divisions. Part of the brilliance of the invasion force and its civilian director, Paul Bremer, was to separate the sects, Sunni, Shi’a, Kurd, from one another, set them at each other’s throats. Within a couple of years, there was a major, brutal sectarian conflict incited by the invasion.
You can see it if you look at Baghdad. If you take a map of Baghdad in, say, 2002, it’s a mixed city: Sunni and Shi’a are living in the same neighborhoods, they’re intermarried. In fact, sometimes they didn’t even know who was Sunni and who was Shi’a. It’s like knowing whether your friends are in one Protestant group or another Protestant group. There were differences but it was not hostile.
In fact, for a couple of years both sides were saying: there will never be Sunni-Shi’a conflicts. We’re too intermingled in the nature of our lives, where we live, and so on. By 2006 there was a raging war. That conflict spread to the whole region. By now, the whole region is being torn apart by Sunni-Shi’a conflicts.
The natural dynamics of a conflict like that is that the most extreme elements begin to take over. They had roots. Their roots are in the major US ally, Saudi Arabia. That’s been the major US ally in the region as long as the US has been seriously involved there, in fact, since the foundation of the Saudi state. It’s kind of a family dictatorship. The reason is it has a huge amount oil.
Britain, before the US, had typically preferred radical Islamism to secular nationalism. And when the US took over, it essentially took the same stand. Radical Islam is centered in Saudi Arabia. It’s the most extremist, radical Islamic state in the world. It makes Iran look like a tolerant, modern country by comparison, and, of course, the secular parts of the Arab Middle East even more so.
It’s not only directed by an extremist version of Islam, the Wahhabi Salafi version, but it’s also a missionary state. So it uses its huge oil resources to promulgate these doctrines throughout the region. It establishes schools, mosques, clerics, all over the place, from Pakistan to North Africa.
An extremist version of Saudi extremism is the doctrine that was picked up by ISIS. So it grew ideologically out of the most extremist form of Islam, the Saudi version, and the conflicts that were engendered by the US sledgehammer that smashed up Iraq and has now spread everywhere. That’s what Fuller means.
Saudi Arabia not only provides the ideological core that led to the ISIS radical extremism, but it also funds them. Not the Saudi government, but wealthy Saudis, wealthy Kuwaitis, and others provide the funding and the ideological support for these jihadi groups that are springing up all over the place. This attack on the region by the US and Britain is the source, where this thing originates. That’s what Fuller meant by saying the United States created ISIS.
You can be pretty confident that as conflicts develop, they will become more extremist. The most brutal, harshest groups will take over. That’s what happens when violence becomes the means of interaction. It’s almost automatic. That’s true in neighborhoods, it’s true in international affairs. The dynamics are perfectly evident. That’s what’s happening. That’s where ISIS comes from. If they manage to destroy ISIS, they will have something more extreme on their hands.
And the media are obedient. In Obama’s September 10 speech, he cited two countries as success stories of the US counterinsurgency strategy. What were the two countries? Somalia and Yemen. Jaws should have been dropping all over the place, but there was virtual silence in the commentary the next day.
The Somalia case is particularly horrendous. Yemen is bad enough. Somalia is an extremely poor country. I won’t run through the whole history. But one of the great achievements, one of the great boasts of the Bush administration counterterror policy was that they had succeeded in shutting down a charity, the Barakat charity, which was fueling terrorism in Somalia. Big excitement in the press. That’s a real achievement.
A couple of months later the facts started leaking out. The charity had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism in Somalia. What it had to do with was banking, commerce, relief, hospitals. It was sort of keeping the deeply impoverished and battered Somali economy alive. By shutting it down, the Bush administration had ended this. That was the contribution to counterinsurgency. That got a few lines. You can read it in books on international finance. That’s what’s being done to Somalia.
There was a moment when the so-called Islamic courts, they were called, an Islamic organization, had achieved a kind of a measure of peace in Somalia. Not a pretty regime, but at least it was peaceful and people were more or less accepting it. The US wouldn’t tolerate it, and it supported an Ethiopian invasion to destroy it and turn the place back into horrible turmoil. That’s the great achievement.
Yemen is a horror story of its own.
Going back to National Public Radio andMorning Edition, the host, David Greene, was doing an interview with a reporter based in Gaza, and he prefaced his interview with this comment: “Both sides have suffered tremendous damage.” So I thought to myself, does this mean Haifa and Tel Aviv were reduced to rubble, as Gaza was? Do you remember the Jimmy Carter comment about Vietnam?
Not only do I remember it, I think I was the first person to comment on it, and am probably to date practically the only person to comment on it. Carter, the human rights advocate, he was asked in a press conference in 1977 a kind of mild question: do you think we have some responsibility for helping the Vietnamese after the war? And he said we owe them no debt — “the destruction was mutual.”
That passed without comment. And it was better than his successor. When a couple years later George Bush I, the statesman, was commenting on the responsibilities after the Vietnam War, he said: there is one moral problem that remains after the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese have not devoted sufficient resources to turning over to us the bones of American pilots. These innocent pilots who were shot down over central Iowa by the murderous Vietnamese when they were spraying crops or something, they have not turned over the bones. But, he said: we are a merciful people, so we will forgive them this and we will allow them to enter the civilized world.
Meaning we’ll allow them to enter trade relations and so on, which, of course, we bar, if they will stop what they’re doing and devote sufficient resources to overcoming this one lingering crime after the Vietnam War. No comment.
One of the things that Israeli officials keep bringing up, and it’s repeated here in the corporate media, ad nauseam, is the Hamas charter. They don’t accept the existence of the state of the Israel, they want to wipe it off the map. You have some information about the charter and its background.
The charter was produced by, apparently, a handful of people, maybe two or three, back in 1988, at a time when Gaza was under severe Israeli attack. You remember Rabin’s orders. This was a primarily nonviolent uprising which Israel reacted to very violently, killing leaders, torture, breaking bones in accordance with Rabin’s orders, and so on. And right in the middle of that, a very small number of people came out with what they called a Hamas charter.
Nobody has paid attention to it since. It was an awful document, if you look at it. Since then the only people who have paid attention to it are Israeli intelligence and the US media. They love it. Nobody else cares about it. Khaled Mashal, the political leader of Gaza years ago, said: look, it’s past, it’s gone. It has no significance. But that doesn’t matter. It’s valuable propaganda.
There is also — they don’t call it a charter, but there are founding principles of the governing coalition in Israel, not some small group of people who are under attack but the governing coalition, Likud. The ideological core of Likud is Menachem Begin’s Herut. They have founding documents. Their founding documents say that today’s Jordan is part of the land of Israel; Israel will never renounce its claim to the land of Jordan. What’s now called Jordan they call the historical lands of Israel. They’ve never renounced that.
Likud, the same governing party, has an electoral program — it was for 1999 but it’s never been rescinded, it’s the same today — that says explicitly there will never be a Palestinian state west of the Jordan. In other words, we are dedicated in principle to the destruction of Palestine, period.
This is not just words. We proceed day by day to implement it. Nobody ever mentions the founding doctrines of Likud, Herut. I don’t either, because nobody takes them seriously. Actually, that was also the doctrine of the majority of the kibbutz movement. Achdut Ha-Avodah, which was the largest part of the kibbutz movement, held the same principles, that both sides of the Jordan River are ours.
There was a slogan, “This side of the Jordan, that side also.” In other words, both western Palestine and eastern Palestine are ours. Does anybody say: okay, we can’t negotiate with Israel? More significant are the actual electoral programs. And even more significant than that are the actual actions, which are implementing the destruction of Palestine, not just talking about it. But we have to talk about the Hamas charter.
There is an interesting history about the so-called PLO charter. Around 1970 the former head of Israeli military intelligence, Yehoshafat Harkabi, published an article in a major Israeli journal in which he brought to light something called the PLO charter or something similar to that. Nobody had ever heard of it, nobody was paying any attention to it.
And the charter said: here’s our aim. Our aim is it’s our land, we’re going to take it over. In fact, it was not unlike the Herut claims except backwards. This instantly became a huge media issue all over. The PLO covenant it was called. The PLO covenant plans to destroy Israel. They didn’t know anything about it, nobody knew anything about it, but this became a major issue.
I met Harkabi a couple years later. He was kind of a dove, incidentally. He became pretty critical of Israeli policy. He was an interesting guy. We had an interview here at MIT, in fact. Incidentally, at that time there was material in the Arab press that I was reading saying that the Palestinians were thinking about officially throwing out the charter because it was kind of an embarrassment.
So I asked him, “Why did you bring this out for the first time just at the time when they were thinking of rescinding it?” He looked at me with the blank stare that you learn to recognize when you are talking to spooks. They are trained to pretend not to understand what you’re talking about when they understand it perfectly.
He said, “Oh, I never heard that.” That is beyond inconceivable. It’s impossible that the head of Israeli military intelligence doesn’t know what I know from reading bits and pieces of the Arab press in Beirut. Of course he knew.
There’s every reason to believe that he decided to bring this out precisely because he recognized, meaning Israeli intelligence recognized, that it would be a useful piece of propaganda and it’s best to try to ensure that the Palestinians keep it. Of course, if we attack it, then they’re going to back off and say: we’re not going to rescind it under pressure, which is what’s happening with the Hamas charter.
If they stopped talking about it, everyone would forget about it, because it’s meaningless. Incidentally, let me just add one more thing. It is now impossible to document this, for a simple reason. The documents were all in the PLO offices in Beirut. And when Israel invaded Beirut, they stole all the archives. I assume they must have them somewhere, but nobody is going to get access to them.
What accounts for the almost near unanimity of the Congress in backing Israel? Even Elizabeth Warren, the highly touted Democratic senator from Massachusetts, voted for this resolution about self-defense.
She probably knows nothing about the Middle East. I think it’s pretty obvious. Take the US prepositioning arms in Israel for US use for military action in the region. That’s one small piece of a very close military and intelligence alliance that goes back very far. It really took off after 1967, although bits and pieces of it existed before.
The US military and intelligence regard Israel as a major base. In fact, one of the more interesting WikiLeaks exposures listed the Pentagon ranking of strategic centers around the world which were of such significance that we have to protect them no matter what, a small number. One of them was a couple of miles outside Haifa, Rafael military industries, a major military installation.
That’s where a lot of the drone technology was developed and much else. That’s a strategic US interest of such significance that it ranks among the highest in the world. Rafael understands that, to the extent that they actually moved their management headquarters to Washington, where the money is. That’s indicative of the kind of relationship there is.
And it goes way beyond that. US investors are in love with Israel. Warren Buffet just bought some Israeli enterprise for, I think, a couple billion dollars and announced that outside the US, Israel is the best place for US investment. And major firms, like Intel and others, are investing heavily in Israel, and continue to. It’s a valuable client: it’s strategically located, compliant, does what the US wants, it’s available for repression and violence. The US has used it over and over as a way of circumventing congressional and popular restrictions on violence.
There’s a huge fuss now about children fleeing Central America, say, from Guatemala. Why are they fleeing from Guatemala? You can see a photo of one of them here in my office. They’re fleeing from Guatemala because of the wreckage of Guatemala, of which a large part was the attack on the Mayan Indians, which was really genocidal, in the early 1980s. That’s a Mayan woman in the photo, in fact. They’ve never escaped this, and many of them are fleeing.
Reagan, who was extremely brutal and violent and a terrible racist as well, wanted to provide direct support for the Guatemalan army’s attack, which was literally genocidal on the Mayan Indians. There was a congressional resolution that blocked him, so he turned to his terrorist clients.
The major one was Israel. Also Taiwan, a couple of others. Israel provided the arms for the Guatemalan army — to this day they use Israeli arms — provided the trainers for the terrorist forces, essentially ran the genocidal attack. That’s one of their services. They did the same in South Africa. Actually, this led to an interesting incident with the great hero Elie Wiesel.
In the mid-1980s, Salvador Luria, a friend of mine who is a Nobel laureate in biology and politically active, knew about this. It wasn’t a big secret. He asked me to collect articles from the Hebrew press which described Israel’s participation in genocidal attacks in Guatemala — not just participation, it’s a leadership role — because he wanted to send it to Elie Wiesel with a polite letter saying: as a fellow Nobel laureate, I would like to bring this to your attention. Could you use your influence — he didn’t ask him to say anything, that’s too much, but privately could you communicate to the people you know well at a high level in Israel and say it’s not nice to take part in genocide. He never got a response.
A couple of months later, I read an interview in the Hebrew press, where they really dislike Wiesel. They regard him as a charlatan and a fraud. One of the questions in the interview was, “What do you think about Israel’s participation in the genocidal assault in Guatemala?”
The report says Wiesel sighed and then said: I received a letter from a fellow Nobel laureate bringing to my attention these actions and asking me if I could say something privately to try to restrict them somehow, but, he said: I can’t criticize Israel even privately. I can’t say anything even privately that might impede Israel’s participation in genocide. That’s Elie Wiesel, the great moral hero.
Even this story is astonishing. Now children and many other refugees are fleeing from three countries: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Not from Nicaragua, about as poor as Honduras. Is there a difference? Yes. Nicaragua is the one country in the 1980s that had a way of defending itself against US terrorist forces — an army. In the other countries the army were the terrorist forces, supported and armed by the US, and its Israeli client in the worst cases. So that’s what you had.
There is a lot of upbeat reporting now saying the flow of children has reduced. Why? Because we’ve turned the screws on Mexico and told them to use force to prevent the victims of our violence from fleeing to the US for survival. So now they’re doing it for us, so there are fewer coming to the border. It’s a great humanitarian achievement of Obama’s.
Incidentally, Honduras is in the lead. Why Honduras? Because in 2009 there was a military coup in Honduras which overthrew the president, Zelaya, who was beginning to make some moves towards badly needed reform measures, and kicked him out of the country.
I won’t go through the details, but it ended up with the US, under Obama, being one of the very few countries that recognized the coup regime and the election that took place under its aegis, which has turned Honduras into an even worse horror story than it was before, way in the lead in homicides, violence. So, yes, people are fleeing. And therefore we have to drive them back and ensure that they go back into the horror chamber.
In the current situation, it seems that this is an opportunity for the Kurdish population of Iraq to realize some kind of statehood, some kind of independence, something that they’ve wanted for a long time, and which intersects, actually, with Israeli interests in Iraq. They have been supporting the Kurds, rather clandestinely, but it’s well known that Israel has been pushing for fragmentation of Iraq.
They are. And that’s one of the points on which Israeli and US policy conflict. The Kurdish areas are landlocked. The government of Iraq has blocked their export of oil, their only resource, and of course opposes their statehood bid. The US so far has been backing that.
Clandestinely, there evidently is a flow of oil at some level from the Kurdish area into Turkey. That’s also a very complex relationship. Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader, visited Turkey about a year ago, I guess, and made some pretty striking comments. He was quite critical of the leadership of the Turkish Kurds and was plainly trying to establish better relations with Turkey, which has been violently repressing the Turkish Kurds.
Most of the Kurds in the world are in Turkey. You can understand why, from his point of view. That’s the one outlet to the outside world. But Turkey has a mixed attitude about this. An independent Kurdistan in, say, northern Iraq, which is right next to the Kurdish areas of Turkey, or in the Syrian Kurdish areas, which are right by them, potentially, from the Turkish point of view, might encourage separatists or even efforts for autonomy in the southeastern part of Turkey, which is heavily Kurdish. They’ve been fighting against that ever since modern Turkey arose in the 1920, very brutally, in fact. So they have a mixed kind of attitude on this.
Kurdistan has succeeded somehow in getting tankers to take Kurdish oil. Those tankers are wandering around the Mediterranean. No country will accept it, except probably Israel. We can’t be certain, but it looks as though they’re taking some of it. The Kurdish tankers are seeking some way to unload their oil in mostly the eastern Mediterranean. It’s not happening at a level which permits Kurdistan to function, even to pay its officials.
On the other hand, if you go to the Kurdish so-called capital, Erbil, apparently there are high rises going up, plenty of wealth. But it’s a very fragile kind of system. It cannot survive. It’s completely surrounded by mostly hostile regions. Turkey is sort of unclear because of the reasons that I mentioned. So, yes, they do have that in mind. That’s why they took Kirkuk as soon as they could.
There are a couple of questions I want to close with, actually from our latest book, Power Systems. I ask you, “You’ve got grandchildren. What kind of world do you see them inheriting?”
The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim. The major concern ought to be the one that was brought up in New York at the September 21 march. A couple hundred thousand people marched in New York calling for some serious action on global warming.
This is no joke. This is the first time in the history of the human species that we have to make decisions which will determine whether there will be decent survival for our grandchildren. That’s never happened before. Already we have made decisions which are wiping out species around the world at a phenomenal level.
The level of species destruction in the world today is about at the level of sixty-five million years ago, when a huge asteroid hit the earth and had horrifying ecological effects. It ended the age of the dinosaurs; they were wiped out. It kind of left a little opening for small mammals, who began to develop, and ultimately us. The same thing is happening now, except that we’re the asteroid. What we’re doing to the environment is already creating conditions like those of sixty-five million years ago. Human civilization is tottering at the edge of this. The picture doesn’t look pretty.
So September 21, the day of the march, which was a very positive development, an indication that you can do things, it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’re going to wipe everything out, that same day one of the major international monitoring scientific agencies presented the data on greenhouse emissions for the latest year on record, 2013. They reached record levels: they went up over 2 percent beyond the preceding year. For the US they went up even higher, almost 3 percent.
The Journal of the American Medical Association came out with a study the same day looking at the number of super hot days that are predicted for New York over the next couple of decades, super hot meaning over ninety. They predicted it will triple for New York, and much worse effects farther south. This is all going along with predicted sea-level rise, which is going to put a lot of Boston under water. Let alone the Bangladesh coastal plan, where hundreds of millions of people live, will be wiped out.
All of this is imminent. And at this very moment the logic of our institutions is driving it forward. So Exxon Mobil, which is the biggest energy producer, has announced — and you can’t really criticize them for it; this is the nature of the state capitalist system, its logic — that they are going to direct all of their efforts to lifting fossil fuels, because that’s profitable. In effect, that’s exactly what they should be doing, given the institutional framework. They’re supposed to make profits. And if that wipes out the possibility of a decent life for the grandchildren, it’s not their problem.
Chevron, another big energy corporation, had a small sustainable program, mostly for PR reasons, but it was doing reasonably well, it was actually profitable. They just closed it down because fossil fuels are so much more profitable.
In the US by now there’s drilling all over the place. But there’s one place where it has been somewhat limited, federal lands. Energy lobbies are complaining bitterly that Obama has cut back access to federal lands. The Department of Interior just came out with the statistics. It’s the opposite. The oil drilling on federal lands has steadily increased under Obama. What has decreased is offshore drilling.
But that’s a reaction to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Right after that disaster, the immediate reaction was to back off. Even the energy companies backed off from deep-sea drilling. The lobbies are just pulling these things together. If you look at the onshore drilling, it’s just going up. There are very few brakes on this. These tendencies are pretty dangerous, and you can predict what kind of world there will be for your grandchildren.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements.