A crowd packed the Memorial Church at Harvard on Saturday (March 6) to hear Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist and activist Noam Chomsky question U.S. foreign policy during the first year of the Obama administration, including its dogged opposition to Iran’s efforts to harness nuclear energy.
Sponsored by the Harvard Extension School’s International Relations Club, the discussion also featured investigative journalist and author Amy Goodman, host of public radio’s “Democracy Now!”
Qualifying Goodman’s introduction of him, Chomsky began by saying he was mentioned in a recent New York Times op-ed piece as “one of the last stale holdovers” of the 1960s. But his discussion points were decidedly topical.
Comparing President Barack Obama with President George H.W. Bush, Chomsky noted that while Bush was criticized because he lacked “the vision thing,” Obama “is sort of the opposite — grand vision, real vision of what should be done, but he hasn’t succeeded much in practice.”
On Iran, for example, he said that Brazil’s failure to go along with the United States in supporting harsher sanctions has been called a refusal to “go along” with the international community. But Chomsky called this “a reflection of the depth of cultural imperialism. Who is the international community?” he asked. “It’s Washington, and whoever happens to agree with them.” The “rest of the world,” he maintained, has supported Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, as did the majority of the American people before the “huge mass of propaganda” that has been promulgated on the topic since 2007.
“Obama’s vision is to reduce or remove nuclear weapons,” Chomsky said. “That’s the vision. What’s the practice?”
A U.N. Security Council resolution called on all states to join the nonproliferation treaty “without any threat of force,” Chomsky said. But, he added, two countries — the United States and Israel — said they wanted to “keep all options open. That’s a threat of force,” particularly considering that the two countries have been carrying out field operations “plainly aimed at Iran.”
These threats, Chomsky said, “have the effect of inducing Iran to develop a deterrent,” though he said Iran is not interested in beginning a nuclear war, because it “would be vaporized in five minutes.”
But Iran is far from the only international issue that Obama has to contend with, of course. Chomsky also discussed India and Pakistan, saying that President Ronald Reagan’s support of Pakistani dictators during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan helped to spread Saudi-funded “madrassas,” or Islamic schools, in Pakistan. “A strong jihadi tendency developed in Pakistan,” he said, “and that’s part of what the world is facing today.”
The Obama administration, he said, has “informed India the resolution didn’t apply to them. The more India increases its nuclear capacity, the more Pakistan does, and the threat of nuclear war has been quite close a couple of times.” In refusing to join the nonproliferation treaty, Pakistan, India, and Israel acted with U.S. support, he said.
When asked by Goodman about today’s antiwar movement, Chomsky said it is stronger than the anti-Vietnam War movement was in the early 1960s. In 1962, when President John Kennedy “sent the Air Force to start bombing” South Vietnam, causing a flood of refugees, he said, “protest was zero, literally. It was years before there was any sign of protest.”
Finally, he said, “after years, 1967-68 got a substantial antiwar movement. By then, South Vietnam was gone. Compare that to Iraq. There were huge protests before the war was actually launched. We now know [that President George W.] Bush and British Prime Minister Tony] Blair were just lying [in saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction], but I think demonstrations had an effect … I think [the Iraq war] was retarded by the antiwar movement.”
Chomsky also discussed the war in Afghanistan, the need for civilian trials for war criminals, the keeping of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, a multistate solution for Israel and Pakistan, and his belief that “international affairs are run like the Mafia … Send in your goons to beat them to a pulp so everyone else gets the idea.”
His passion apparent, Chomsky concluded by discussing his own path toward activism. “You can’t become involved part time,” he said. “Go to a demonstration and go home, nothing happens. Only by dedicated, diligent work” can protesters’ voices be heard.