01/10/2013 14:49 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Noam Chomsky Exclusive: A Conversation on the Waning of American Power

As Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught for the past 58 years, Chomsky has long courted controversy with his criticism of the legitimacy of American power from his position on the American left...

Noam Chomsky's voice is a soft lament as he talks of the land of his birth, a land at odds with itself. "American imperial influence has diminished," he tells me, "but we should remember that American power has been on the wane since 1945. The peak of US power was immediately after the Second World War and it has been declining steadily since then."


It's a statement borne out by the current stand-off in Syria, which, I suggest, is the foreign soil upon which the US and Russia are fighting each other. "There's a sense that they are, but I don't think it's real," is Chomsky's refined judgment. "Certainly, the US and Russia have different interests, so there's a conflict."

But there is also the sense the US continues to influence international events to obtain some semblance of its once vaulted status, with foreign policy failures evidence of diminishing global power, and as Chomsky colours his words with a logician's certitude, he leaves little room for argument.

But one would argue with him, if he let you. He lays it on the line. "Since the late 1940s, power has been diversified. In 1949, China became independent, which was a serious blow to the US imperial system based on the idea of controlling Asia via the control of China. Since then, Latin America has also escaped US control.

"Inside the US, policies undertaken by elite groups - such as the offshoring of production and the financial shenanigans which led to the current financial recession - have enriched these elite groups, but have severely harmed US power," he says without further explanation.

As Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught for the past 58 years, Chomsky has long courted controversy with his criticism of the legitimacy of American power from his position on the American left.

At times, he has been a lone voice, finessing a political reality that eludes most writers and academics, and to this end, has assumed the role of guru for those long since disillusioned with global power elites. His word counts and a mind like his, never side-tracked by frivolity, turns its focus upon events to sear through the cant and unlock a truth. And Syria is on his mind.

"There was a drought of unprecedented scale in Syria which devastated the agricultural community, so people streamed into the cities to survive. There was serious social disruption. Therefore, the tragedy that has unfolded in Syria is partly a consequence of global warming."

Before I have time to engage the professor on this particular hot potato, he has driven on. "Syria took in a million or so refugees from Iraq, and on top of that came the huge immigration into the cities. Then events saw some towns emulate the Arab Spring uprisings to which Assad reacted with extreme brutality. The country then entered into the standard dynamics of military conflict.

"The Syrian government was supported by Russia and Iran, from whom it received arms. Later, the growing groups of rebels, some of whom were local militias, jihadis and secular democrats, began to receive arms flown in from Qatar by the CIA.

"As things are moving, downtown Damascus is under the control of President Bashar al-Assad's government while the suburbs are under rebel control. Things are moving in the direction of national suicide with crimes and atrocities on both sides. The country is also moving towards partition with a sector controlled by Assad including Damascus, and a sector controlled by a variety of rebel groups."

But as India, Cyprus and Korea have evinced, partition spells disaster. "It is likely that Kurdish areas, which are gaining some autonomy, may gain complete autonomy and link up with Kurdish areas in northern Iraq to create a broader Kurdish entity."

Chomsky speaks plainly when discussing the UN's special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and his move towards negotiating for a transitional government to pave the way for Assad to leave the country. "Under those conditions there will never be negotiation because Assad is not going to negotiate his suicide.

"And the US government and population are not interested in an armed invasion. The phrase is "no boots on the ground". But other kinds of intervention, like the sanctions regime against Iran, can be carried out which won't cost US casualties."


Which leaves Obama the player of the piece yet to clearly speak his lines. "This UN proposal has been supported by Russia, but the US position is a little hard to determine," says Chomsky. "The US seems to be dragging its feet. There is a formulation of the US position stated by France, but it's pretty much the US position."

So an act of political ventriloquism is all the current US administration can muster (CIA covert operations notwithstanding), and by invoking moral outrage in place of getting its bombers airborne, Obama has exacerbated the sense that US foreign policy is foundering.

"The US policies being enacted are basically Obama's," says Chomsky, but then come words to sting the American right. "Obama greatly expanded the drone campaign. That's the most extreme terrorist campaign going on in the world today."

This is the looking glass moment, when Americans must scrutinise their country's actions and find them wanting. Chomsky invokes a sense of unease by describing a US foreign policy that appears to be evolving reactively to events.

America as rogue state is the declaration. Chomsky elucidates, drawing upon Arab public opinion to make his point. "In the Arab world, the dictators are strongly opposed to Iran and want the US to take action, but the populations don't. The populations don't like Iran, but they don't regard Iran as a threat. That's a western obsession. The populations in the Arab world regard the US and Israel as threats."

Such certainty in an uncertain world seems foolhardy, even when spoken by a man of Chomsky's standing, but it is to Professor Chomsky that people turn and with good reason, for he furnishes us with history, and we are empowered by him. He continues to teach where others hector. But the world according to Chomsky must not be an unchallengeable place. We must think for ourselves.

Should we, therefore, adopt a version of Orwellian doublethink: to trust in the order of the day, while suspecting our political systems of inherent skulduggery? Are we incapable of predicting the course of world events to any degree, able only to comment assuredly upon them after they have occurred?

Perhaps it is here, at this interface - where bald facts cannot support our worried flights of fancy - that conspiracy theories take root, blooming foully in lieu of the intellectual rigour necessary to know tyranny when it appears, and democracy when it does not.

Nevertheless, Professor Chomsky, at the age of 85, remains a light unto the world, and had each nation a man as bravely vocal as he, the world would be a very different place.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / / @JasonAHolmes

Photographs courtesy of (Noam Chomsky, top) Stephen R Boyle ℅ & (Bashar al-Assad, bottom) London School of Economics and Political Science

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