Noam Chomsky on Free Speech and US Foreign Policy

Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician, historian, political critic, and activist. (Wikipedia)

There are few people in the world today who have the capacity to draw so much attention than Noam Chomsky.

A distinguished professor of linguistics at the MIT for many years, his recent attention has focused on finding ways in which to explain the new world order.

As somebody who has effectively seen, analysed and interpreted some of the most dramatic geopolitical events unfolding in the last five decades his perspectives are certainly important to appreciate.

It is with this in mind that I duly queued up for two hours to ensure I got a seat so I could listen to the great man talk at Bogazici University on January 18. He talked for a whole hour and his depth and range traversed a great manner of subjects but he largely focused on US foreign policy.

I want to take the time here to concentrate on the important remarks he made.

His lecture was an opportunity to commemorate the assassination of Hrant Dink as part of a series organised by Bogazici University and therefore much of his topic was an attempt to try and discuss aspects of the notion of freedom of speech.

He began by focusing on Turkey and stated that despite all the developments to the economy and society in the last decade or so, including the Europeanisation process, that there are particular problems in relation to the imprisonment of journalists. Many of whom are of Kurdish background and they are 'significantly overrepresented'. No country has created more alarm than Turkey when it comes to questions around freedom of speech and the treatment of journalists in recent periods. This move against such journalists is a form of 'direct action' but also more importantly 'the constraint of thoughts'.

He regards such behaviour on the part of states as 'sophisticated propaganda' where citizens operate within 'systems of those societies as spectators and not participants'. He remarked Turkey has a choice and regarded its position as a major potential opportunity but it would all depend on the choices that it would make. Chomsky returned to the theme of Turkey towards the end of his lecture.

He began by introducing a much discussed topic in recent periods which is the idea of the apparent decline of America. He suggested that this in fact has been an ongoing debate for many decades but it is somewhat overstated. The US has perpetuated notions of security, prosperity and liberty over the years but this has been rather counter to its foreign policy dynamic. Much of this goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century but it is the period soon after the Second World War that Chomsky focused his attention.

During this period, while many of the nations of Western Europe were busily trying to annihilate each other America grew double in size. By the end of 1945 the US produced 50 per cent of the wealth created by the entire world.

Naturally it wanted to maintain such a position and it moved towards achieving its goals in earnest. Any attempt to try and change that outcome by nations wishing to exercise independence was quickly put down. A few regions of the world became of particular interest including the Middle East but it also included the Far East, Latin America and the former British Empire.

What US foreign policy feared most was the idea of 'functional democracies' and 'independent nationalism'. Many examples were provided to illustrate this point including the 1953 coup in Iran orchestrated by America and Britain. This policy approach has been maintained all the way until the end of the Cold War when 'new pretexts' were created based on 'the alleged threats of others'.

The former Soviet Empire focused its attention on Eastern Europe and Central Asia and for the US it was 'the rest of the world'. The nature of this 'American exceptionalism' is based on 'brutal intervention', 'on stages of colonialism' and on 'selfishness alone in every small form'. The examples of Nicaragua and former 'fascist Japan' were also illustrated but importantly for Chomsky the legitimisation of US policy interests are taken 'very seriously as a staple in scholarship'.

But it is the Middle East which has revealed some of the more interesting dynamics on the role of American foreign policy. Quoting a prominent politician, 'whoever controls of the Middle East will control the world'. Attempts were made to cajole Greece and Italy who were important in the transport of oil from the Middle East. When China gained its independent status it was regarded as 'the loss of China'. In relation to the Vietnam War the US 'won the war but not the maximal objectives'. Latin America was seen as the 'virus that spreads the contagion' which had to be 'inoculated by vicious dictatorships'.

In the Middle East this was carried out through responding to secular nationalism by 'supporting Islamism'. The 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbours was a major victory for the US and it firmly established its relations with Israel. With Iran under the Shah and Israel a firm friend apparently Nixon described these two countries as 'two cops on the beat'. Interestingly it was also mentioned that Israel has had other friends across the region but not of Arab origin. Allegedly in 1958 Turkey signed secret working relations with Israel and that Israel also had special agreements with Pakistan in relation to security in Saudi Arabia.

By 1970 the US had only 25 per cent of the wealth creating potential of the world left at its disposal and it roughly remains the same today. But the US also had its own role in the creation of a 'self inflicted decline'.

In the 1970s the role of finance became the dominant mode through which wealth would be created. This is something that was followed suit by the rest of the developing economies including the UK in the 1980s which saw that decimation of its own manufacturing sectors.

In the 1970s the US farmed out its manufacturing to the Far East. What this did in the US and subsequently everywhere else in the developed world is to create a form of neoliberalism which 'concentrated enormous wealth' in a very few hands while 'real incomes have declined or stagnated for the most'. Crucially while there is a sense of the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few it is directly related to the concentration of political power in the same very few people. Chomsky quoted the figure of 70 per cent of American society having no influence on policy in any way whatsoever. The very rich have all the power.

South America suffered from the neo-colonial policies of the US but in recent periods it has begun to sort out its internal problems and create forms of integration across the region. This has given it strength and a role on the global stage but the Arab Spring is a very serious set of developments for the US. The general model of US foreign policy has been to 'support those most amenable to the interests of the US'. If there are changes, for example if the army loses devotion to the political powers, these dictators tend to be 'discarded and the original regimes restored. This has happened in Egypt and Tunisia.

For the US a 'love of democracy [is only] for our regime'. In Libya while Gaddafi was the planted dictator he was somewhat 'mercurial' and he was also beginning to open up to other interests namely China. Since the changes that have occurred in Libya the Chinese have effectively been 'kicked out'. Chomsky argued that this is something that is now going on in Mali and he maintained the view that this would go on and on as it has gone on and on since the end of the Second World War.

In effect the US wants to 'reduce the threat of functioning democracies' and this is quite easy to understand in the Middle East. All of the major US-based survey companies have confirmed time and time again that in terms of the threats to world security it is the US and Israel which dominate not Iran that respondents in the Middle East tend to emphasise. The US wants to prevent Arab nations from demonstrating any kind of functional capacity and therefore it will seek to prevent it from emerging.

Chomsky highlighted that in the final televised US presidential debate in 2012 one country was mentioned more than any other. It was Iran. Surely enough there are perhaps problems with the dictator there but the views of Ahmadinejad are wholly different to that of the population of Iran as a whole. Chomsky argued that the US however has no interest in the people only the leaders of the country.

And so why is Iran such a threat? It is so because it seeks to 'create a deterrent' and to 'gain influence among neighbouring countries'. That in itself is seen as a threat and is presented in US policy terms as a form of 'destabilisation' on the part of Iran in a region which needs to be 'stabilised' by ongoing US foreign policy endeavours. Such is the irony of language.

In returning to the topic of free speech and the new world order he mentioned the important remark in relation to how very obvious patterns of the geopolitical behaviour on the part of the US are and how they are simply not given the attention they deserve in the US itself. 'Free speech [is] restrained in a climate where there is free speech'.

And one of the biggest concerns in the Middle East and across the thinking world in general is the 'Palestine-Israel two state solution'. According to Chomsky it is been blocked by the US ever since 1976 and as recently as 2011 when the Obama regime vetoed on it again in the UN. According to every international ruling Israeli settlements are wholly illegal but they are rarely discussed in the US media in these terms.

In a final remark on Turkey Chomsky argued that the country is at a critical juncture in its history and in particular around the 'Kurdish issue'. In Iraq there is a region of Kurdish territory that may well remain autonomous. In fact only recently it started to pump its own oil. If Syria breaks up there may well be an autonomous Kurdish region there. All of this puts particular pressure on the South East region of Turkey with its own extensive populations of Kurds who seek development, equality, justice, human rights and cultural and linguistic recognition in society but have had it denied to them since the founding of the republic and arguably during the Ottoman period as well. Chomsky did not rule out the idea that 'an autonomous region is a possibility' in Turkey too.

With these points he abruptly ended his talk. He gently and calmly walked off the stage to rapturous applause and surrounded by a media pack and academics from the University who wished to be closely associated with the great man. I remained seated for a while thinking through what I had just heard on as I reflected on his thoughts. Many of the ideas he presented are well known among certain left-leaning and liberal circles but what Chomsky is able to do is to add a considerable weight of detail around specific events in cases relating to the hegemonic neoliberal discourse and policy regime of the US.

What I found most interesting was the idea of how American scholarship is so silenced in openly critiquing policy and how the pro-Israeli lobby is so influential in swaying American opinion through the political process but also in how uncritically receptive American media is to the information machinery that emerges from it. I was also quite pleased to learn how simple his basic ideas were in relation to the machinations of American foreign policy interests. It also made me think closely about the role of Western Europe and in particular Britain in aligning itself so closely to the dominant global interests. It also made me feel somewhat despondent about the future.

It seems there is very little that can be done to challenge the mighty juggernaut. Any attempts to do so are brutally put down. And in intellectual terms and fortunately I do sociology and not Middle East politics there seems to been very little mainstream critique of note. All of this suggests that agency that people might wish to mobilise ultimately yield little or no effective returns in the long run in spite of any short-term gains.

But of course much of the analysis of Chomsky is a global macro-dynamic perspective on the role of global players in enacting a game of global chess much in the way that the Europeans did for two centuries up until the end of the Second World War. It is possible to become quite excited about the idea of the role of China and India and perhaps even Brazil as players in this world game but it would be to overstate their position given the ongoing economic, political, social and cultural power of the US and its influence across the world in spite of all the challenges that it faces within.

I was very glad to have had the opportunity to spend these moments sitting before the great man. Nothing of what he said was any surprise although certainly the additional details gave me far more of an insight. His general perspectives on the new world order are very much in line with a whole host of others who are independent thinkers unprepared to accept what they read in the newspapers, what they see on television and in Hollywood movies and how the language of selfish power is masked within the rhetoric of selfless liberty, freedom and democracy. Few dare to speak out and tell it like it is.

                                                                Tahir Abbass

Tahir Abbas BSc(Econ) MSocSc PhD FRSA, Professor of Sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul, is an academic, researcher, and government consultant.