Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Chomsky interview: full transcript

Professor Chomsky, it’s great to meet you. You were the first to really open my eyes to the reality of class power on a global scale and for that I’m very grateful. But I also take to heart your injunction to hold public intellectuals to account, so I hope to do a little of that today as well.

Firstly, on Libya, a few days before the NATO bombing started, you were interviewed on the BBC. You said you thought the rebellion was “wonderful”; you claimed that it was “initially non-violent” and you called the rebel takeover of Benghazi “liberation”. Now that groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are reporting that the rebels were armed from the very first day of the uprising  and have been rounding up and executing innocent African migrants and black Libyans in droves ever since, do you feel ashamed of your public support for them in those crucial days before the NATO aggression began?

“No. I mean, what Amnesty International reports I am sure is correct, that there were armed elements among them, but notice they didn’t say that the rebellion was an armed rebellion; in fact the large majority were probably people like us [sic], middle class opponents of Gaddafi. It was mostly an unarmed uprising. It turned into a violent uprising and the killings you are describing indeed are going on, but it didn’t start like that. As soon as it became a civil war, that happened. In fact, right now at this moment NATO is bombing a home base of the largest tribe in Libya – Libya’s a tribal country. Benghazi is not Libya, its separate from the country, quite separate in fact, historically. Now they’re bombing the base of the largest tribe, it’s not getting reported much, but if you read the Red Cross reports they’re describing a horrifying humanitarian crisis in the city that’s under attack, with hospitals collapsing, no drugs, people dying, people fleeing on foot into the desert on foot to try to get away from it and so on. That’s happening under the NATO mandate of protecting civilians. That’s something we should think about it. And if we want to talk about Libya, we should remember that there were two interventions, not one, by NATO. One of them lasted about five minutes. That’s the one I was thinking about, the one that was taken under the UNSC resolution 1973, which actually came after that discussion, and that one called for a no fly zone over Benghazi when there was the threat of a serious massacre there, and the longer term mandate of protecting civilians, and that one lasted almost no time. Almost immediately, not NATO but the three traditional imperial powers, France, Britain and the United States carried out a second intervention which had nothing to do with protecting civilians and certainly wasn’t a no fly zone, but was participation in a rebel uprising, and that’s the one we’ve been witnessing. You can think what you like about it, but it’s almost isolated internationally. Libya’s an Adfrican country and the African countries are strongly opposed – they called for negotiations and diplomacy from the very beginning. The main independent countries – the BRICS countries – they had a major meeting right during this and again opposed the second intervention and called for efforts at negotiations and diplomacy. Even within NATO’s limited participation outside of the triumvirate, in the Arab world – almost nothing – Qatar sent a couple of planes, Egypt next door, very heavily armed, didn’t do a thing, Turkey held back for quite a while, and finally participated weakly in the triumvirate operation. So it’s a very isolated operation. They claim that it was under an Arab League request - that’s mostly fraud. First of all the AL request was extremely limited and the AL participation was a minority, mainly just Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. They issued a request for a no fly zone – actually two no fly zones – one over Libya, the other over Gaza. We don’t have to talk about what happened to that one. And after that, it kind of backed off(?)

Q2: But nevertheless it seems like you say that the attacks on black Libyans and migrant workers happened later o., but actually its been documented that50 African migrants were executed on the second day of the rebellion, February 18th.

The rebels, the armed rebels?


They were a part of the uprising, but they weren’t the uprising.

But nevertheless, this has been something that has really characterised a large,  significant chunk of the uprising

In the West, where it was taken over by the Western tribes – not Benghazi - there have been serious attacks against black Libyans and black migrants. That’s basically what there is of a Libyan working class. Like other oil dictatorships, there’s not much of a working class, but there was is very substantially black, and they’ve been under attack, that’s true.

But what I’m saying is that when you were doing this interview at crucial moment before NATO’s aggression, these things were already clear.

These things were absolutely not clear, and they weren’t reported, and even afterwards when they are reported, they’re not talking about the uprising, they’re talking about an element within it, which we now know is correct.

But it’s quite substantial

NOW it is.

And Jabril has given his support to the ethnic cleansing of Tawarga

Now it is, but that wasn’t

So this is not a minor sect within the rebellion

You’re talking about what happened after the civil war took place and the NATO intervention.

And on the second day of the uprising, long before the NATO intervention

Two points, which I’ll repeat. First of all, it wasn’t known and secondly it was a very small part of the uprising. The uprising was overwhelmingly middle class nonviolent opposition. We now know there was an armed element and that quickly became prominent after the civil war started. But it didn’t have to, so if that second intervention hadn’t taken place, it might not have happened.  

But surely it was clear that UNSC 1973, from the beginning when Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama were pressing for it, that it was only ever going to be a figleaf for an invasion, surely that was clear.

You’re talking about things that happened after the interview, even the resolution, and it wasn’t clear, even for those five minutes that the imperial powers accepted the resolution. It became clear a coupe of days later when they immediately started bombing in support of the rebels. And it didn’t have to happen. It could have been that world opinion, most of it – BRICS, Africa, Turkey and so on - could have prevailed.

I wanted to touch on an article you wrote, published on 4th April. In the past you’ve been very critical of intellectuals who have used their platform to focus on the real or alleged crimes of official enemies rather than on the crimes of their own government. But in this article, you focussed mainly on the alleged crime of Gaddafi in the nineties, that’s how it opened, when this a few weeks into the aggression when NATO had already killed thousands, possibly tens of thousands…

You remember how the article started?


How did it start?

By talking about Gaddafi’s alleged involvement in Sierra Leone.

No, it didn’t start like that. It started talking about US and British support for Gaddafi’s crimes, practically up to the moment of the invasion. It talked about an article which appeared in the London Times about the Sierra Leone tribunal – that’s how it started – right at the time of this article, the prosecution had rested in the Sierra Leone tribunal and a London Times reporter had interviewed the prosecution lawyers, an American Law Professor and an English barrister – and they complained bitterly, they said that they had wanted to prosecute Gaddafi because of his training and arming of Taylor forces that they’d charged with killing about a million people, but Britain and the US according to them threatened to defund the tribunal if they went after Gaddafi and when the American law professor was asked by the reporter why, he said “welcome to the world of oil”. That was the opening of the article, then it went on to talk about the involvement of the Harvard Business School in support for Gaddafi – writing the dissertation for his son, which led to the (lawsuit, early) retirement and so on. And he did commit – he was a terrible person in my view, he committed plenty of crimes, and some of the worst of them were supported by the US and Britain right up to the moment when they decided they could do better by turning against him. That’s what the article was about and I think it’s right to write about that.

Surely, at the moment of this NATO colonial aggression, surely focussing – albeit on US and British support for Gaddafi’s crimes – focussing primarily on the evils of the Gaddafi regime is to a certain extent playing into hands of – even manufacturing consent for – the aggression.

Supporting – pointing out the – I don’t describe it the way you do, so don’t accept your description so I won’t comment on it – but criticising the imperial triumvirate for having supported the worst crimes, I think is exactly the point. And the crimes are real, there’s no reason not to describe them. Look, I’ve written about Gaddafi plenty of times before. I wrote very harshly criticising the Reagan bombing in 1986, which incidentally is extremely interesting in ways that have never been acknowledged by the media, I don’t know if you followed that much, but that bombing was the first in history that was timed specifically for prime time television and it was carried off effectively. Kind of an important fact, and there’s a lot more to say about that; nevertheless I would never question his crimes, they’re terrible.

You said that Libya was used as a punch bag to deflect from domestic problems.

Yeah, it was. But that doesn’t mean that it was a nice place.

But do you not accept the possibility that your helping to demonise, I would say, the Libyan government and whitewashing the rebels may have helped facilitate the invasion?

Of course I didn’t whitewash the rebels, I said almost nothing about them. But it couldn’t facilitate the invasion a month after the invasion took place.

But the interview four days before.

The interview was before any of this – it was in the period when a decision had to be made about whether even to introduce a UN resolution to call for a no fly zone – and incidentally I said after that was passed that I think a case could be made for it, and I would still say that.

So what would you say in general terms should be the role of intellectuals during the period before NATO or Western aggression starts, the period of demonization, the period of manufacturing consent?

First of all, I don’t accept your description –

Which description?

I wouldn’t call it NATO aggression, it’s more complex that that. The initial step – first intervention, the five minute one – I think was justifiable. There was a chance – a significant chance – of a very serious massacre in Benghazi. Gaddafi had a horrible record of slaughtering people, and that should be known – but at that point, I think the proper reaction should have been to tell the truth about what’s happening. In that interview, if I had known about the US-UK blocking of the prosecution of Gaddafi, I would have brought that up too. I happened to find it out a couple of weeks later.

Many thanks for your time, and great to meet you.

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