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David Barsamian: Let’s talk about historical memory. The 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg Tribunal for high ranking Nazis was just marked. Robert Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor and Supreme Court Justice, said, “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poison chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.” There’s an excellent new book out called The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory. You have a chapter in there called “From Mad Jack to Mad Henry,” the latter being Kissinger. But who is Mad Jack?
Noam Chomsky: Mad Jack, John Percival, commander of a navy ship invaded Vietnam in, I think it was 1845. That was the first major American attack on Vietnam. Mad Henry, we know the record, in between plenty, after Mad Henry plenty more. Justice Jackson was mistaken when he said, “History will judge us.” It hasn’t. History hasn’t judged us. History has ignored us. The custodians of history, mainly liberal intellectuals, don’t talk about this. Try giving a talk at a law school as I’ve sometimes done and ask them what they think about the fact that every U.S. president radically violates the U.S. Constitution. You can explain it to a 10 year old. Take a look at Article Six of the Constitution, “Treaties” entered into by the U.S. government are “the supreme Law of the Land.”
What’s the main treaty entered into by the U.S. government since the Nuremberg Tribunal? UN Charter. What does the UN Charter say? Take a look at article 2.4. It says, “The threat or use of force” in international affairs is outlawed, it’s criminal. Can you think of any American president who hasn’t used either the threat or use of force in international affairs? What does it mean when every president and numerous high officials, including the Nobel Prize peace laureate Obama, what does it mean when they say that in the case of Iran all options are on the table? Is that a threat of force? Is that a violation of the U.S. Constitution? I even put aside the use of force. How about Obama’s massive global assassination campaign, to kill people who the government claims are threatening us? Now suppose that any other government was doing that. Suppose that Iran was killing people around the world who they claim are a potential threat to them. We’d notice it. When we do it, doesn’t matter.
There was an actually interesting article that came out recently by a major British legal authority who’s been defending some of the Guantanamo prisoners. He pointed out that of the prisoners in Guantanamo, overwhelming majority, there are plenty who still remain without any charges, but the great majority have been released after U.S. intelligence agencies carefully inspected their records and discovered that they were no threat. Now these are supposed to be the worst of the terrorists. Those are the ones the drone campaigns are aimed at. You kill plenty of other people, but theoretically they’re aimed at the people who are supposedly threats.
The people that were sent to Guantanamo are the peak of those who were supposed to be threats. And after years of torture and illegal imprisonment and other atrocities, they were released because it was recognized they never were a threat. What does that tell you about the drone campaign? You don’t have to be a genius to figure it out, which is murdering people, not only the people we aim at, we often miss, but the families, children, wives, community, terrorizing areas, because we’re trying to kill people who aren’t a threat, but who somebody mistakenly said were a threat. But even if they were a threat, I mean, is Mike Pompeo a threat to Iran? So why don’t they kill him? Would that be okay? Would we cheer, doing what we’re supposed to be doing? Going back to Robert Jackson, I’m afraid he’s wrong. We have proven him to be wrong. The intellectual community, good liberals, legal authorities have simply said, “We’re not subject to the law. Even our own Constitution doesn’t apply to us.” What applies to us is what we feel like doing.
Hermann Goering was the highest ranking Nazi at Nuremberg. He said, “The victor will always be the judge and the vanquished the accused.”
Unfortunately, it’s true. Take even the Nuremberg Tribunal itself. It was probably the least defective of all of the international tribunals. The people who were charged were undoubtedly terrible criminals. But the Nuremberg Tribunal itself was severely flawed. That was pointed out by Telford Taylor, the American counsel for the prosecution. He wrote about it later, and he agreed that there was a deep flaw in the Tribunal. Essentially, the Tribunal defined a war crime as something you did and we didn’t do. So bombing of urban concentrations to try to kill as many civilians as possible was not considered a crime. The reason was the British and the Americans did it far more than the Germans, so therefore it’s not a crime. So destroying cities with the explicit goal of killing civilians, that was after all the explicit goal, we have to harm their morale by killing civilians, not secret. That wasn’t a crime.
Dresden, other German cities, Tokyo, much worse than Hiroshima, not crimes. In fact, if you’ll take a look at the Tribunal, the German war criminals were able to plead successfully that what they did was also done by the West, so therefore they were innocent. The submarine commander Admiral Doenitz was charged with attacking civilian ships.
His lawyers brought in his defense an American Admiral who said, “We did the same thing.” Okay, therefore it’s not a crime. That’s the Nuremberg Tribunal, the best of all the tribunals. So I’m glad the Tribunal took place, it’s better than if it didn’t, but we shouldn’t have any illusions about it. It was deeply flawed. That was victor’s justice. The Tokyo Tribunal was just ridiculous. Japanese commanders were executed because of crimes committed by troops they had no contact with, things like that.
In the book, Retargeting Iran, you discuss in the chapter “U.S. War with Iran: Covert and Overt” the proposal for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Few people have ever even heard of this. And then you mention the 1976 Symington Amendment. He was a senator from Missouri. You say, “U.S. aid to Israel for the past almost 40 years is illegal under U.S. law.” Talk about that.
There’s a profession called lawyers, whose task is to show that words don’t mean what they say. So I understand that. But if we look at the actual words, it’s arguable, but it is certainly at least arguable that U.S. aid to Israel is illegal under U.S. law. There are updates to the Symington Amendment which carry it further. And there’s a very interesting issue there, which is one of those things is undiscussable in the United States, but very critical to contemporary affairs. There’s much highly justified concern now about a possible war with Iran. Is Trump going to go out in a blaze of glory by bombing around or something like that? But take the whole issue with Iran, not just Trump, Obama, everyone else. Iran is supposed to be a terrible threat to peace, maybe the greatest threat to peace. And worst of all is their program for developing nuclear weapons.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Let’s say Netanyahu is right, they are secretly developing nuclear weapons. Is there a way to stop that? Yes, a very simple way. Impose a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East with intensive inspections. We know that inspections can work.
U.S. intelligence confirms that, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirms it. They were very effective during the period of the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement, the Iran Deal. So reinstitute them and impose a nuclear-weapons-free zone.
Is anybody opposed to that? Actually, only two countries, the U.S and Israel. Arab countries strongly in favor, Iran strongly in favor, non-aligned countries, most of the world, former non-aligned, so called G77, 130 or so countries strongly supporting it, Europe supports it. Every time it comes up, the U.S. vetoes it. Obama, in 2015, came up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference. Everyone in favor, Obama blocked it. In meetings since, same thing. Why does the U.S. block it? Everybody knows, nobody can say, because it would mean that Israel’s nuclear weapons would be subject to inspection. The United States does not officially recognize that Israel has nuclear weapons. It’s a joke. Everybody knows they have nuclear weapons, but the U.S. government won’t recognize it.
That goes back to the Symington Amendment. As soon as you recognize it, it opens that door. Nobody in the government, Democrat or Republican, wants to open that door. The liberal intellectual community doesn’t want to open that door. So you don’t have any discussion of a very simple way of ending whatever threat you think Iran poses. So no justification for murderous sanctions, no justification anyway, but the official justification gets totally knocked down. No justification for the efforts to torture Iranians, especially now during the pandemic, none. All goes, simple solution, can’t talk about it. I mean, you can talk about it in arms control circles, and it’s a free country, I can give talks about it, as I’ve done a 1,000 times. Pointing this out, of course, audiences understand immediately. In fact, I should say that if there were a really functioning Palestinian solidarity organization here, this would be one of its top priorities. Let’s impose a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Let’s pursue the fact that U.S. aid to Israel is arguably even in violation of U.S. law.
This is not incidentally the only case. There’s the so- called Leahy Law, Senator Patrick Leahy, which bans U.S. military aid to any military unit anywhere that’s engaged in systematic human rights violations. The Israeli army is up to its neck in systematic human rights violations all the time. You can read about it in the Israeli press, Israeli human rights groups, B’Tselem, international human rights groups, not a secret. So yes, there are points where activist pressures could make a big difference. They’re not being carried out, unfortunately. But these are things that are kept under a veil, you don’t want to talk about them. It’s kind of like the Chinese vaccine, even worse, we don’t talk. That’s at least sometimes mentioned. This, you can search, it’s almost a total ban.
And I should add there’s more to it. The U.S. and Britain are uniquely committed to a nuclear-weapons-free zone, there’s a reason. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. and Britain rammed through a Security Council resolution, which called on Saddam Hussein to eliminate his nuclear weapons programs, which he in fact did. The resolution had a series of other provisions. One of them, Article 14, commits the signers, the U.S. and Britain to work to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. That’s a U.S.-British sponsored Security Council resolution calling on these two states to move to institute a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. They have a unique responsibility to do it, meaning to open up Israeli nuclear weapons to inspection and to raise the question about the legality of U.S. economic and military aid to Israel. That’s a direct duty, cannot be discussed. Of course, it can, like we’re talking about and we’ve talked about it before. But it can’t enter the mainstream.
This year began with the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, and it almost is ending with the assassination of the Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, probably by Israel. David Sanger writing in The New York Times reported, “The assassination threatens to cripple President-elect Biden’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal before he can even begin his diplomacy with Tehran.” And he continues, “And that may well have been a main goal of the operation.” About Benjamin Netanyahu, Sanger writes that he has a second agenda, and that is, quoting Netanyahu, ‘There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement.’ Nowhere in the article does Sanger even mention that Israel has nuclear weapons, or that this assassination is yet another example of its violations of international law. What’s going on with U.S.-Iran relations in this interim period and the dangers of a possible wider war?
That’s an important question, but we should remember there’s a background. Why is the U.S. torturing Iran in the first place? What is the justification for the U.S. sanctions regime? This is not the first murder of a nuclear weapons scientist. There have been a string of others, sabotage of Iranian facilities, just one very recently, all of these things. What’s the justification for any of them? Actually none, as I just mentioned, but let’s talk about this specific one. I think that analysis is pretty plausible. It looks as if, for some time now, the Trump/Pompeo administration has been trying hard to provoke Iran to carry out some kind of act, which can be used as a pretext for a sharp escalation of the war against Iran.
Notice we are at war against Iran. We have a blockade.
U.S. sanctions are a serious business, U.S. sanctions are third party sanctions, means everyone in the world must observe them or else. Europe doesn’t like them, but they have to observe them, or else we’ll toss them out of the international financial system. We just saw this shown dramatically at the UN recently. The United States went to the Security Council and requested, meaning demanded, that the Security Council renew the lapsed sanctions against Iran. They refused, almost total refusal. Every U.S. ally refused. The U.S. reacted, Pompeo returned to the Security Council and said, “You are reinstituting the sanctions.” They obeyed. You can’t step on the toes of the godfather. Now this also passed without comment. So this is just one of the many examples where the Trump administration is trying almost desperately to get Iran to carry out some action, which they can use as a pretext probably for missile attacks against the nuclear facilities or something like that, to which Iran might respond.
For example, they do have the missile capacity to attack the Saudi energy facilities in northeast Saudi Arabia, near the Iran border. They can to attack this. That’s the main center of global fossil fuel production. Also, Saudi Arabia’s desalination facilities and others, although it’d set off a huge war. We don’t know what it would lead to. But they are eager to do this to try to ensure exactly, as Netanyahu said, that we do not go back to the earlier situation. Now actually, I agree with Netanyahu. We should not go back to the earlier agreement. What we should do is impose a new nuclear- weapons-free zone, which is really nuclear weapons will be subject to international controls and inspection, and in which U.S. aid to Israel will be questioned.
That’s what we should do, not just go back to the JCPOA. So in some ways, I agree with him. But we shouldn’t be trapped in this narrow conception that’s provided by the media and general intellectual framework. We don’t want to be trapped in that, that’s wrong. But that’s probably what they’re trying to do. I think the analysis is correct. In fact, the Biden administration is playing along. One of their top appointees, national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, recently said that the Biden administration will be willing to consider going back to the joint agreement, but the ball is in Iran’s court. They have to start by cutting back, by reversing their increased enrichment of uranium. And they’ve got to have a positive attitude toward negotiations. If they do that, we’ll consider it.
Absolutely backwards. We are the ones who should be pleading with them to go back to the negotiations, which we have consistently undermined, actually destroyed under Trump, but undermined under Obama. Even under Obama, we were not living up to the agreements. The agreements say, one part of them is that no party shall try to injure the Iranian economy during the period of the negotiations. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something to that effect. The Obama administration was doing it constantly. We weren’t living up to the agreements. But now the Biden administration spokesperson is saying, “We might be willing to consider going back to the negotiations, if they take the first steps,” as if they’re the guilty party, not us. Should never accept any of this.
Robert Fisk, we both knew him, shared platforms with him, passed away in late October. In 2010, he said this about objectivity, “It is the duty of a foreign correspondent to be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer, whoever they may be.” Fisk was a critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. He wrote of the Kurdish question, the Armenian genocide and other taboo topics. Talk about him briefly, and then this notion, this almost sacred notion of objectivity.
Fisk was a marvelous correspondent, brave, honest, knowledgeable, great writer. Much of the profession just hated him. And now he’s under very ugly attacks from many journalists. A number of good journalists have written about this, like Jonathan Cook. Now that he’s dead, he can’t sue anybody, all kind of ugly attacks are coming from journalists. It’s sick. He was one of the top ones. So what about objectivity? It’s a funny notion. First of all, we shouldn’t pretend that we’re just neutral observers. Every human being has a point of view. If you don’t have a point of view on things, you’re not a human being, you don’t have a functioning brain. If you’re a serious journalist or scholar, what you do is make your point of view very clear, so that your readers can understand it and compensate for it, and then try to be as accurate as you can about what’s happening, always framed in the background about what’s important to you.
If what’s important to you is the rights of the powerful, okay, make that clear and write from that perspective. If your point of view, perspective is the rights of the suffering and the oppressed, make that clear, and then describe that as accurately as you can, without cutting corners. But pure objectivity is just a meaningless notion in the sciences as well. No nuclear physicist approaches the next article he reads with pure objectivity, as if he didn’t have some beliefs about the subject. I mean, it’s just ludicrous. You read the scientific literature.
A paper just came out a couple of weeks ago in one of the top quantum theory journals, with a debate among a bunch of scientists, top scientists, about what a particle is, the most critical concept in physics. What’s a particle, a lot of different views, people arguing about it. Any way they look at an experiment is going to be shaped by their point of view. That’s fundamental physics. Suppose you’re looking at the Syrian war. Of course, you’re going to have a point of view. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a fine objective journalist, as Robert Fisk was, Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass, Jonathan Steele, and quite a few others. They all have a point of view. Fisk was also a great human being. I knew him personally for many years.
November 29th is the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, a UN-organized observance. It marks UN resolution 181 of November 29th 1947, which proposed the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The national poet of Palestine is Mahmoud Darwish. (1941-2008) One of his greatest poems is “Under Siege.” This is the opening verse,
“Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time,
close to the gardens of broken shadows, We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.”
What hope is there for the Palestinians, a people that you have been in solidarity with for decades, at this what seems to be the bleakest moment in their history? Where more and more land and water is being annexed by Israel and the possibility of a viable, independent Palestinian state recedes?
It is a grim moment in the history of the Palestinians. And anyone concerned with their rights and prospects has to be super careful about two things. One, being clear about what the actual situation is. Two, being clear about the kinds of choices, of action that can be taken to try to improve, overcome, at least mitigate the crisis in which they live. Those two things require serious clear thought, and I don’t think it’s being done. So on the issue of what the circumstances are, almost all discussion these days that you see is between two options. One is a two-state settlement of some sort. There has been a general international consensus on that since the 1970s, so something like that. The other option that’s considered is one state, Israel, takes over the West Bank, and then an anti-apartheid struggle ensues. That’s the second option.
But that’s missing the third and crucial option, the one that is in fact being implemented before our eyes, which has been the major guideline for Israeli policies for 50 years. That’s a greater Israel, which Israel takes over whatever is of value to it in the West Bank, formerly Gaza, but now on the West Bank, but evades the Palestinian population concentrations. So Israel does not want Nablus, doesn’t want Tulkarm, doesn’t want Palestinians. So nothing like the anti-apartheid struggle, where the white population needed the black population, and in fact tried to subsidize the Bantustans, tried to make them look decent to the international community. This is quite different. Israel just wants the Palestinians out. It does use them for cheap labor, but they can get cheap exploited labor from Thailand or other places and do in fact.
They just want the Palestinians out. What they’ve been doing for 50 years and what you see before your eyes, which you can see if you drive around the West Bank, is a greater Israel, in which Israel takes over all the valuable areas, the Jordan Valley, about a third of the territory, fertile land, kick out the population on one or another pretexts. Take greater Jerusalem, huge area about five times the size of what Jerusalem ever was or take the city of Ma’ale Adumim east of Jerusalem, built up mostly in the Clinton years, corridor to it, pretty much bisects the West Bank. Same to the north with the town of Ariel, the town of Kedumim, leave out the Palestinian population concentrations, and don’t take Nablus, that’s for them, until we finally manage to get rid of them.
The rest of the Palestinians who live in the areas that Israel’s taking over, put them in isolated enclaves, separated from their olive groves, agricultural areas, herds, with checkpoints, which occasionally are open at the will of Israeli soldiers. Keep them in isolation, subjected to constant attacks by what are called hilltop youth and other terrorist crazies and just make life impossible for them. Meanwhile, the Jewish-held areas are basically suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. So you can live in Ma’ale Adumim in a nice villa, subsidized by the government, and take the Jewish-only superhighway. It takes you to your job in Tel Aviv, come back to your nice, subsidized home in the suburbs in the evening. You don’t even see an Arab. That’s greater Israel. That’s what’s being implemented.
Like any other new colony, anywhere, the Israeli authorities understand that you have to do something for the Palestinian elites. So have a place where they can gather, go to the theater, have nice restaurants, shopping malls, pretend they’re in Europe. That’s Ramallah, basically, you’ve got to do that. Same thing you find all through Africa and other similar neocolonial areas. That’s the reality. Israel is not going to accept taking over the Palestinian population. Israel is not going to accept becoming a minority state with a minority of Jews. We can be quite certain of that. So that’s just not an option. A lot of talk about it, but I don’t think it’s an option. Discuss that, but it seems to me that’s what has to be faced.
As far as actions are concerned that could overcome this crisis, there’s one point that’s critical, that’s the United States. If the United States continues, as it has pretty consistently, with some breaks, to support the Israeli greater Israel project, they’ll just continue with it. No reason for them to stop, as long as the global godfather says, “You can go ahead.” Will it continue? I think that’s an open question. If you look at support for Israel within the United States, it’s shifted radically over the last couple of decades. Go back 20 years and beyond, Israel was the darling of the liberal population, loved Israel, it’s the most wonderful place in the world. I think this was true pretty much worldwide, saying, “Swedish teenagers could live in a kibbutz because it was that wonderful.”
That’s all changed. Israel is now a pariah state among liberal opinion. In fact, most people who identify as liberal Democrats are more supportive of Palestinian rights. Support for Israel has shifted to the far right, as Israel itself has shifted to the far right. So the support for Israel in the United States is now the Republican Party. It’s evangelicals, ultra-nationalists, those connected to military industry, which has very tight links to Israel. That’s the support for Israel. And there are open possibilities. This is also true of the younger Jewish population, I should say. A lot of possibilities for trying to move to shift U.S. policy, and they’re very concrete things. We’ve already mentioned a few, the legitimacy of U.S. military and economic aid to Israel. Sore point, that’s why nobody wants to talk about it. But it’s a point for activism, and there are other things like that. Israel’s constant violations of international law or it’s huge human rights violations, that’s the vicious repression in the occupied territories.
All of this should be front and center. And I think with that, there could be a change in U.S. policy, and it doesn’t have to be a huge change. Even bringing up the possibility of terminating or limiting the huge economic and military aid to Israel would have a big effect, moving forward on even more. So I think there are things that can be done. I don’t think the situation’s hopeless. But you have to be clear about it. Ask yourself what can be done effectively, not what makes you feel righteous. It’s kind of like talking about defund the police. You have to do it in a way which is going to work, not in a way which is going to be self-destructive.
During the summer, you used to find time to read fiction. Can you recall any particular novels that stuck in your mind? And you told me that in this pandemic year, you’ve been so busy you’ve been unable to read any fiction. This goes to the question of what can art do in a society?
That’s a long story. This is in fact the first summer where I haven’t had the luxury of enjoying a series of novels and other forms of relaxation, too busy. The last summer I was on a Saramago kick, running through his novels. But it’s much too broad a topic to discuss.
Last question. Years ago, you told me you had “bad genes” and that you did not expect to live a long life. Well, you turn 92 on December 7th. You have a Bicycle Theory of Longevity. Explain what that is.
It’s pretty simple. If you keep riding fast, you don’t fall off. Unfortunately, my wife Valeria won’t let me get near a bicycle.
I think I can say for a lot of people, “Happy Birthday, Noam.”
Thanks. Keep riding. Z
(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)
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