Noam Chomsky is one of the world's most prominent critics of American foreign policy and global inequality. The 92-year-old author and academic joined Hugh Linehan for this week's Inside Politics podcast to discuss the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the morality of Ireland's tax regime and whether the human race can avoid the twin catastrophes of global warming and nuclear war.
Could I ask you first about the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, after almost 20 years in that country? Given everything that you have written about the way the United States uses its power around the world, what’s your view on how that intervention finally came to an end and what it might mean?
“Well, the United States usually has a strategic purpose in carrying out its military actions around the world. You may like them or not like them but at least there’s some rationale to them. That was not true of the invasion of Afghanistan.
“Probably the best explanation of why the United States did it was given by the most respected leader of the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance, which was functioning well at the time, Abdul Haq.
“He said, ‘the United States knows they’re going to kill a lot of Afghans, they’re going to undermine our efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within but they don’t care. They want to show their muscle and intimidate everyone.’ That’s probably the right answer. It was pretty much verified by Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary of defence.
"The Taliban very quickly offered total surrender: let us go back to our villages and forget it. Rumsfeld's answer was, 'We do not negotiate surrenders'. That was confirmed by president Bush. 'We don't negotiate surrenders. We're going to use force and violence.' For no special purpose, it's nothing to do with al-Qaeda. We wanted to show our muscle and intimidate everyone, which is exactly what happened.
“It’s happening right now in the South China Sea. What is the purpose of sending a fleet of advanced nuclear submarines to Australia, which then get folded into the US naval command and aren’t even operational? Which will compel China to develop its own military forces further to counter this new threat in addition to the many others? Can you find a strategic purpose in that?”
Some observers see a continuity between the foreign policies of the Trump and Biden administrations – although they're obviously very different in some ways – which marks a break with the multiple military interventions of the past 25 years and a refocusing on, as you've just mentioned, the contest for power and possibly for supremacy with China.
“There’s a shift in focus as world affairs shift. So now the challenge to US global dominance is China. So, you shift to China. But the policies remain basically the same. After all, it’s the same policymaking group that’s forming the policies.
“There are some variations. Under George W Bush, the so-called neocons – neo-conservatives – had a much stronger voice. So, you had the invasion of Afghanistan to show our muscle, the invasion of Iraq, plans to go far further openly declared – plans which had to be pulled back because it had all turned into such a disaster. That’s the neocons.
Trump was famous for the fact that every word that came out of his mouth was a lie. But occasionally there were true statements that sneaked through
“On the other hand, it’s not all that different when you move to the Democrats. Obama pretty much followed the same policies, although instead of sending special forces to break into people’s homes and smash them up and recruit for the Taliban, as was being done immediately after the invasion, let’s shift to killing them with drones. More polite. So greatly escalate the drone attacks. Recruit for the Taliban by bombing a village, smashing up whatever’s there, killing a family so that the husband will join the Taliban.
“Trump greatly extended the use of drones and bombings, withdrew any effort to determine who was being killed. So, it’s a more vulgar, harsh version of it. It’s now going to continue in other ways.
In 2017, when then president Trump was being interviewed on Fox News , Bill O’Reilly put it to him that Vladimir Putin was a killer. Trump responded as follows: ‘There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?’ That caused a lot of blowback against Trump, but in a way he was going halfway down a road which you have charted in your critique of the way that America uses its so-called moral exceptionalism to justify all kinds of behaviour, except Trump drew the opposite conclusion, because he was seeing it as a charter for power to be untrammelled and for the powerful to do whatever they want to the weak.
“That’s his policy. But it was a good statement. I praised him for it. Trump was famous for the fact that every word that came out of his mouth was a lie. But occasionally there were true statements that sneaked through. Even the worst, most committed liar may by accident come out with true statements now and then and this was one.
“Are we so innocent? No, we’re not. In fact, the United States is one of those rare countries – maybe the only country – that’s been at war, almost always aggressive war, from the first moment of its founding. It’s always in defence, of course. Everything is in defence. When Hitler invaded Poland, it was in defence against what he called the wild terror of the Poles. When Britain conquered India, it was in defence.”
If I could turn to domestic US policy, another phenomenon of recent years, alongside the rise of the radical anti-democratic right in parts of the Republican Party, is the rise of an alternative on the left wing of the Democratic Party, as exemplified first of all by Bernie Sanders, but also more recently by figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We’re right in the midst now of Congress considering whether or not it’s going to pass these large investment bills. How do you think that project is going from the point of view of those progressive Democrats?
“Well, under the impact of the Sanders movement, Ocasio-Cortez and others who came in on the Sanders wave, lots of young activists, Biden’s programmes have moved slightly back towards the kind of social democracy of the New Deal era, the kind of programmes that somebody like Dwight Eisenhower would have been happy to accept.
“But notice that it’s totally blocked. Republicans are 100% opposed. They’ve established what they call a red line. The red line is it cannot raise taxes on the rich and on corporations. Trump’s tax cut for the rich is one legislative achievement that can’t be touched.
When Reagan and Thatcher talked about markets, they didn't mean a word of what they were saying. What they meant was markets for the working class and the poor, protectionism for the rich and the powerful
"Second, you cannot fund the Internal Revenue Service, because if you fund the IRS, they'll go after tax cheats and the tax cheats are the rich and the powerful. We saw an example of that with the Pandora Papers that just came out, but that's just icing on the cake. So, you can't fund the IRS because then they might stop the trillions of dollars of robbery by the rich and powerful. And you can't raise taxes on the super-rich and the corporations. That's the Republicans – half the Senate.
"And then take a look at the Democrats. There are what are called moderate Democrats. That means reactionary Democrats. One of them is the head of the Senate energy committee, Joe Manchin. He has a policy, stated explicitly, that's written by the Exxon Mobil public relations department. Joe Manchin, who happens to be the lead recipient of fossil fuel funding in Congress, which is a pretty substantial achievement since they flood Congress with funding. He's the swing vote, the moderate Democrat, which means the Democrats can't get it through.
“The budget is being debated right now as we’re talking, but the very strong chances are that nothing remotely like Biden’s programme will go through. The United States will continue to pursue the reactionary neoliberal [policies] that have been a major assault on the population.
“When Reagan and Thatcher talked about markets, they didn’t mean a word of what they were saying. What they meant was markets for the working class and the poor, protectionism for the rich and the powerful. They want a very powerful state which intervenes radically to benefit the wealthy and the corporate sector. And that’s why you’ve had a move during this period towards radical inequality, massive robbery of the working class.
“The United States has what economists sometimes call a bail-out economy. It even has a name, it’s called Too Big to Fail, meaning that if you get into trouble, the friendly taxpayer will bail you out. Everybody else is out on their own. That’s called neoliberalism. A better name for it is one-sided class war.”
It seems embedded in constitutional structures that are anti-majoritarian and allow vast sums of money to sweep through the political system , [along] with other elements such as gerrymandering and lifetime appointments to a powerful Supreme Court. So a relatively centrist Democrat like Joe Biden won the support of the majority of voters, yet what you're saying is he's not going to pass these measures?
“He won by seven million votes but barely squeaked through because of the strange complexities of the American political system. If a few tens of thousands of votes had shifted, Trump would have been elected, with a loss of seven million votes. In fact, if you look back at previous elections, Republicans always lose the popular vote but they win the election. Most of the House of Representatives right now happen to be Democrat, but it’s usually Republicans with a minority of votes. You mentioned gerrymandering. Gerry was one of the Founders. It’s named after him.
“In the 18th century, the American constitution was a very progressive step compared with Britain, the Continent and others. But if I take a look at the dominant legal doctrine in the United States, the one they teach in law schools, the one the supreme court claims to abide by, it’s textualism, originalism. We have to try to figure out what the words of the constitution meant in the 18th century. That has to be the law. Sheer insanity. Who cares what a bunch of rich white slave-owners wanted 250 years ago?
“But it’s a good way to be deeply reactionary and pretend to be supporting the constitution. And it’s worth remembering that no American president abides by the constitution. None.
Ireland, for its own benefit, has robbed poor working people around the world of tens of trillions of dollars
"Take a look at the constitution, which you're supposed to worship but not read. Take a look at article 6. It says straight out: treaties entered into by the United States government are the supreme law of the land and every official must abide by it. Well, the main treaty in the post-World War II era is the the United Nations Charter. Take a look at the UN Charter, article 2, section 4: the threat or use of force in international affairs is criminal, with few exceptions which are irrelevant.
“Which US president has not resorted to the threat or use of force? I can’t think of one. So, they’re all undermining the US constitution. When Obama addresses Iran and says, ‘all options are open,’ meaning we can attack you with nuclear force if we want, he’s violating the constitution. Does anybody care? No.”
You’ve had some strong words about the Irish taxation system, particularly as it applies to offshore companies. You described Ireland as a tax haven. What do you think we should do about that?
“Cancel it. Ireland, for its own benefit, has robbed poor working people around the world of tens of trillions of dollars. Huge quantities. Take the world’s first trillion-dollar corporation, its headquarters are in Ireland, [which] means it doesn’t have to pay US taxes. One of many gimmicks by which the very rich can rob from the poor. Ireland wants to be part of that? Your choice. I certainly don’t approve of it.”
People might say that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and that nations and states do whatever they can to gain a competitive advantage.
“Hitler would have greatly approved. It’s one way for states to act. Germany did pretty well on it. Almost conquered Eurasia. So, yeah, when nations are out for themselves, that’s what you find.
“That’s why Britain became very rich. It started in the Elizabethan era with piracy. But then it turned to the most vicious forms of slavery in human history. First in the British Caribbean islands, then the American South. That’s why Britain pretty much supported the Confederacy. When they lost that, Egypt, then India. Then England turned to the largest narco-trafficking operation in human history, conquered more of India to try to monopolise the opium trade.
“So take a look at British wealth – robbery on the high seas; a hideous system of slavery, narco-trafficking. A very wealthy country. So, yeah, what you’re saying is right, that’s what states do. Attila the Hun was doing the same too. It’s one way to behave.”
That brings me to my final question. You point to two profound existential threats to the future continuance of the human race and the planet, one being the climate emergency, the other the continuing and perhaps increasing prospect of nuclear war between two powers, possibly the United States and China. And given what you’ve just described – a history of untrammelled power built on the bones and the graves of the oppressed and the dispossessed, what in your view is the possibility of the human race avoiding either or both of these twin catastrophes on which the clock is ticking, increasingly loudly in both cases?
“The clock is indeed ticking. Is there a way out? Yes. We have clear, explicit, feasible answers to every single crisis that we face. Political leaders know them, they’re on the table. Question is will they be compelled to abide by them. We don’t know the answer to that. That’s in your hands. My hands. The hands of young people.
“Will they or won’t they take the bill in Congress right now, moving towards a mild form of social democracy, way behind Europe? Looks like it won’t get through. If there was mass popular protest, it might force Congress to pass it. The same is true on every one of these issues.
“It’s not going to come from above. If there is popular engagement, activism, dedication, it can happen. There’s no limit to what can happen. But it’s not going to happen by itself.”