Noam Chomsky is a noted linguist, author, and foreign policy expert. On February 9, Michael Shank interviewed him on the latest developments in US policy toward Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Venezuela. This is Part IV of a four-part series.
Shank: In the 2008 presidential election, how will the candidates approach Iran? Do you think Iran will be a deciding factor in the elections?
Chomsky: What they’re saying so far is not encouraging. I still think, despite everything, that the US is very unlikely to attack Iran. It could be a huge catastrophe; nobody knows what the consequences would be. I imagine that only an administration that’s really desperate would resort to that. But if the Democratic candidates are on the verge of winning the election, the administration is going to be desperate. It still has the problem of Iraq: can’t stay in, and can’t get out.
Shank: The Senate Democrats can’t seem to achieve consensus on this issue.
Chomsky: I think there’s a reason for it. The reason is just thinking through the consequences of allowing an independent, partially democratic Iraq. The consequences are nontrivial. We may decide to hide our heads in the sand and pretend we can’t think it through because we cannot allow the question of why the United States invaded to open, but that’s very self-destructive.
Shank: Is there any connection to this conversation and why we cannot find the political will and momentum to enact legislation that would reduce C02 emissions levels, institute a cap-and-trade system, etc.?
Chomsky: It’s perfectly clear why the United States didn’t sign the Kyoto Protocol. Again, there’s overwhelming popular support for signing, in fact it’s so strong that a majority of Bush voters in 2004 thought that he was in favor of the Kyoto Protocol, it’s such an obvious thing to support. Popular support for alternative energy has been very high for years. But it harms corporate profits. After all, that’s the Administration’s constituency.
I remember talking to, 40 years ago, one of the leading people in the government who was involved in arms control, pressing for arms control measures, détente, and so on. He’s very high up, and we were talking about whether arms control could succeed. And only partially as a joke he said, “Well it might succeed if the high tech industry makes more profit from arms control than it can make from weapons-related research and production. If we get to that tipping point maybe arms control will work. He was partially joking but there’s a truth that lies behind it.
Shank: How do we move forward on climate change without beggaring the South?
Chomsky: Unfortunately, the poor countries, the south, are going to suffer the worst according to most projections – and that being so, it undermines support in the north for doing much. Look at the ozone story. As long as it was the southern hemisphere that was being threatened, there was very little talk about it. When it was discovered in the north, very quickly actions were taken to do something about it. Right now there’s discussion of putting serious effort into developing a malaria vaccine, because global warming might extend malaria to the rich countries, so something should be done about it.
Same thing on health insurance. Here’s an issue where, for the general population, it’s been the leading domestic issue, or close to it, for years. And there’s a consensus for a national healthcare system on the model of other industrial countries, maybe expanding Medicare to everyone or something like that. Well, that’s off the agenda, nobody can talk about that. The insurance companies don’t like it, the financial industry doesn’t like and so on.
Now there’s a change taking place. What’s happening is that manufacturing industries are beginning to turn to support for it because they’re being undermined by the hopelessly inefficient US healthcare system. It’s the worst in the industrial world by far, and they have to pay for it. Since it’s employer-compensated, in part, their production costs are much higher than those competitors who have a national healthcare system. Take GM. If it produces the same car in Detroit and in Windsor across the border in Canada, it saves, I forget the number, I think over $1000 with the Windsor production because there’s a national healthcare system, it’s much more efficient, it’s much cheaper, it’s much more effective.
So the manufacturing industry is starting to press for some kind of national healthcare. Now it’s beginning to put it on the agenda. It doesn’t matter if the population wants it. What 90 percent of the population wants would be kind of irrelevant. But if part of the concentration of corporate capital that basically runs the country – another thing we’re not allowed to say but it’s obvious – if part of that sector becomes in favor then the issue moves onto the political agenda.
Shank: So how does the south get its voice heard on the international agenda? Is the World Social Forum a place for it?
Chomsky: The World Social Forum is very important but of course that can’t be covered in the West. In fact, I remember reading an article, I think in the Financial Times, about the two major forums that were taking place. One was the World Economic Forum in Davos and a second was a forum in Herzeliyah in Israel, a right wing forum in Herzeliyah. Those were the two forums. Of course there was also the World Social Forum in Nairobi but that’s only tens of thousands of people from around the world.
Shank: With the trend towards vilifying the G77 at the UN one wonders where the developing world can effectively voice their concerns.
Chomsky: The developing world’s voice can be amplified enormously by support from the wealthy and the privileged, otherwise it’s very likely to be marginalized, as in every other issue.
Shank: So it’s up to us.
Foreign Policy In Focus contributorMichael Shank is the policy director for the 3D Security Initiative.