Noam Chomsky has been active in the movement against US military intervention for many years. His most recent book on the Middle East is The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (South End, 1986). His latest book, Turning the Tide (South End, 1986), is on US policy toward Central America. Joan Mandell and Zachary Lockman spoke with him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in late April.

Why Libya and why right now?

Public relations. This is the first bombing in history that was scheduled for prime-time television, to be picked up on the evening news as it was happening. It was also timed right before the crucial House vote on aid to the contras. In case anybody didn’t get the point, Reagan made a speech the same day in which he said that this “mad dog” Qaddafi was bringing the war home to the United States by sending arms to Nicaragua. One pro-contra lobbying group has been distributing pamphlets with pictures of Qaddafi and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega on the cover.

The earlier Gulf of Sidra shootout was also timed right before a crucial Senate contra-aid vote. Each of four or five previous incidents involving Libya were similarly timed. In February 1983, there was a sharp right-wing attack on the Reagan administration, particularly George Shultz, as being insufficiently militant. So it was necessary to strike some heroic poses. The administration concocted a ludicrous fable about a Libyan coup attempt in Sudan, a good excuse to send the Navy into the Gulf of Sidra. Then George Schultz could get up on television and talk about “putting Qaddafi back in his box.” The one American reporter who actually went to the Sudan, James Dorsey of the Christian Science Monitor, discovered the plot was so subtle that Sudanese and Egyptian intelligence had never even heard of it. “We’re getting our information from the Americans,” they said. About a year before that, there was another fable about a Libyan invasion of Sudan. And another show of force. Before that there was the tale about the Libyan hit men wandering the streets of Washington to assassinate Reagan.

The point of all these incidents is that they are a way of keeping the country in a fever of militancy. For that you need confrontations with the Evil Empire. Qaddafi is such a cheap target. He’s easy to hate. There’s no danger. The US can beat him up at will. Iran and Syria can defend themselves, and you’ve got the Russians around and so on. But Libya is a pariah state, and weak. So if you want to bomb a city and kill a hundred people, the best place to do it is Tripoli.

It has nothing to do with terrorism. They’re hoping to incite terrorism, and they’ve done so. The disco bombing — whoever was responsible, and the administration story is shot full of internal contradictions even if Libya was involved — that was plainly a reaction to the Gulf of Sidra incident. Prior to that, Libyan terrorism had been overwhelmingly directed against Libyans. We know about it in detail. Amnesty International, for example, lists 14 Libyans killed, several overseas, and gives the precise circumstances. That’s terrorism. But in the same years in which Qaddafi was killing 14 Libyans, Jose Napoleon Duarte was presiding over the slaughter of tens of thousands of Salvadorans with US assistance. Qaddafi is not in our league. Even the “terrorologists” acknowledge that Libya is a marginal player in this game.

But this focus on terrorism is an important political tool.

That was clear in the first days of the Reagan administration, when Haig announced that international terrorism was going to be the core of their foreign policy instead of human rights. In fact, US foreign policy today is about as concerned with terrorism as Carter’s was with human rights. It’s related to Reagan’s domestic agenda, which is essentially three things: a substantial transfer of resources from the poor to the wealthy, support for military intervention, subversion and aggression; and a forced public subsidy of high-technology, military-based industry. Knowing that agenda, you could predict a very militant administration, because with policies like that you have to have a mobilized population. You’ve got to stir up militarist sentiments. Libya was a natural target.

Why is “terrorism” such a useful ideological construct?

First, their concept of terrorism is highly selective. There’s a wonderful story in St. Augustine’s City of God, where Alexander the Great captures a pirate and says, “How dare you molest the seas!” And the pirate turns to him and says, “How dare you molest the world! I have a small ship, so I’m a pirate, a thief. But you have a big navy, so you’re an emperor.” If the emperor disturbs the world, that’s not terrorism, but if a thief disturbs the seas, that is terrorism.

Our thieves are not terrorists. When they started this hype in 1981, the great insight was that the Russians were behind it — the proof being that communist states are never targeted. In fact, Cuba has probably been subjected to more terrorism than the rest of the world combined. The US had a major terrorist operation against Cuba in the early 1960s. Nobody denies that. In 1970-1971, the US destroyed crops and poisoned livestock in Cuba. Former CIA operative Orlando Bosch is probably the world’s deadliest terrorist. He was involved in blowing up a Cuban airliner in which 73 people were killed. His group bombs Cuban missions abroad. None of that counts as terrorism; it’s the emperor’s side.

Just take a look at how it works. Random attacks against Americans — even if it’s only five a year — strike terror into the hearts of Americans. They’re afraid to go to Greece. That means something. But if the US carries out massive terrorism in the Third World, that doesn’t hurt anybody here. When Israel bombed Tunis and killed 20 Tunisians and 55 Palestinians, everybody thought that was wonderful. Israel has been hijacking ships going from Cyprus to Lebanon for at least ten years. When Israel carries out “iron fist” operations in southern Lebanon, that doesn’t bother anybody here. But if somebody occasionally blows up an airplane, that hurts people here. When people talk about terrorism, they’re talking about acts against Americans, not acts carried out by the American government, which are vastly greater in scale, but are directed against people who don’t count.

What is the Reagan administration’s larger agenda?

Reagan himself probably doesn’t understand the words he’s reading from his cue cards, but the people around him do. You can’t approach people and say, “Look fellas, the poor are going to have to subsidize the rich, and you’re going to have to cut down on your consumption, so as to provide a forced subsidy to IBM, and we’re going to start overthrowing governments around the world.” You have to frighten people with the Evil Empire conquering the world, and with international terrorism, the scourge of the modern age. Planners and propaganda specialists can figure this out in a minute. It’s Reagan’s agenda, and the Democrats went along with it.

The use of terrorism today is analogous to the use of communism in the 1950s to support counterrevolution abroad. Anti-communism also had domestic political uses — to destroy the left. Do you see terrorism being used in that way?

They would like to use it for that purpose, but it’s not going to work. Government force was no greater in the early 1950s than in the late 1960s. But the student movement and the other connected movements didn’t just collapse; they resisted. There was nothing like COINTELPRO in the early 1950s. There was vilification, which is a pain, but it’s not death. I don’t want to understate what happened — people did lose their jobs — but it was mainly a kind of moral collapse of the old left. In the 1960s, people were stronger. The government did do some serious things in the late 1960s, mainly against the black movement. But the efforts to undermine the white movement didn’t have a major effect. The one good thing about American democracy is that the state is relatively limited in its capacity to use violence against the more privileged sectors of the population. That means there’s a lot of space for people’s movements without very serious consequences: You’re not going to end up in a psychiatric prison or a death camp.

The US seems to have adopted the Israeli approach to terrorism.

Israel, like the United States, chooses its targets by weakness, not relevance. Tunis was completely undefended — a cheap target. In late March, the Lebanese resistance attacked the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli mercenary force, which then shelled the marketplace in Nabatiyya, killing several people. Then a Katyusha rocket was fired at Kiryat Shmona [Israel]; and Israel bombed refugee camps near Sidon [Lebanon], killing ten. The Israeli military commander said they did not know who shot the rocket. That’s not retaliation.

Hasn’t the US put itself in the position of having to repeat its bombing of Libya?

They may have trapped themselves into a very dangerous situation. Most of the so-called terrorism is actually coming out of Lebanon, the consequence of the 1982 Israeli invasion. When Washington accuses Syria and Iran, they mean Lebanese groups who they claim are connected to Syria and Iran. Attacking Syrian positions means getting involved with the Soviet Union. There may be a joint Israel-American attack on Syria, maybe this summer. It’s possible they’ll set up an American retaliation for some terrorist act allegedly supported by Syria, which could be combined with an Israeli “preemptive strike,” another rationale that has been established.

Why have US peace and anti-intervention movements been so reluctant to get involved in the Middle East?

I think a combination of racism and fear. Racism reflecting an assumption that Arabs are something less than human beings. For most of the peace movement, there’s no conception that the indigenous population in what was Palestine has rights even equivalent to the rights of the settlers who largely displaced them. No one questions whether Israel should be a party to negotiations, but we’re supposed to debate whether the PLO should be. A second element is fear. There’s a marvelous defamation apparatus. Naturally, in the age of Orwell, it’s run by organizations with names like the Anti- Defamation League. If anybody is even mildly critical of Israel, they’ll be subjected to discredit, lies and abuse. They don’t send death squads, but they can make life rather unpleasant. And there’s no way of responding to all the lies. The attitude toward Israel is entirely reminiscent of Stalinism: If you criticized Russia, you were objectively against the revolution, therefore you had to defend it no matter what. That’s essentially the attitude towards Israel.

How can we confront this?

Talk about it openly. The facts are pretty clear. The public at large has a much better position on this than the left. Polls generally show that two thirds of the people here even favor a Palestinian state. It’s not a matter of the left leading. They’ve got a long way to go to catch up with the general public.

Some people explain US support for Israel in terms of the influence of the Zionist lobby. It could also be explained in terms of what American planning strategists see as the defense of American hegemony in the region.

It’s both. The lobby can be effective only insofar as what it’s advocating coincides with major forces inside the American establishment — which is not uniform. The ruling class has different strategies as to how to protect American interests in the region. The different conceptions showed up quite clearly in the Rogers-Kissinger contest 15 years ago. They each had a point — forgetting any question of morality or legality and considering only the problem of how to ensure US domination in oil-producing regions. One way is the Nixon Doctrine: having a range of gendarmes, powerful regional states which can suppress any incipient nationalist developments — that’s the Kissinger line. The other approach, the Rogers line, was to encourage a diplomatic settlement with the countries in the region and assume that the oil-producers thereby would be in the pocket of the US, as things quieted down and they weren’t threatened too much by their own populations. Each is a plausible conception. George Ball eloquently advocates the Rogers line, among whose proponents are many ex-ambassadors. This is another instance which shows how meaningless terms like conservative and liberal are. Among “conservatives,” substantial groups support a political-diplomatic settlement. The "liberals" overwhelmingly support the Kissinger approach: Use force, support a militant Israel, block any political settlement.

The Jewish lobby pushes the extreme hawk position, which happens to coincide with powerful interests, well-represented in corporate circles and the Pentagon. But it is opposed by powerful groups like the oil companies. The lobby may have a swing effect, where the debate within the circles of power could have gone the other way if it hadn’t been for the lobby’s influence.

Under Reagan the practice has been virtually to write off Arab client regimes in favor of “strategic understanding” with Israel. Is there any room for a future change of course?

Sure, any time. One of the beauties of ruling the world is you can decide what to do at each point. At the moment you can essentially disregard the oil producers. When there’s pressure on the energy markets, the decision could be what people like Robert Tucker suggest: Unleash Israel. Or it could be the Rogers/Ball/oil company approach. For the moment the issue can simply be disregarded.

How do you see the Israel-Central America-South Africa connection?

That’s very important. It’s not just Israel as a regional power. Long before the Nixon Doctrine was established, Israel was already performing very useful services for the US, particularly in Africa. The services Israel could provide as kind of a mercenary state were becoming apparent and became quite significant in the 1970s. Israel provided a way for the US to evade the UN embargo against Rhodesia, for example. Undoubtedly Israel served that purpose with regard to South Africa. And in Latin America, Carter couldn’t deal with the dictators of the Southern Cone directly because of the human rights constraints, but Israel was perfectly able to do so. Central America is a still more important example. It’s very useful to the US for Israel to be a pariah state, highly militarized, no economy, totally dependent, completely dependable and available to carry out missions as needed: a kind of a Sparta you can send out whenever you need to. And for that, you have to ensure that military conflict keeps going. If there were a political settlement, Israel would probably become another Luxembourg, of no use to the United States. It’s of much greater advantage to have the conflict go on. I suspect that’s one of the major reasons, quite apart from the Zionist lobby, why the hawks always win.

How to cite this article:

Zachary Lockman, Joan Mandell "“The First Prime-Time Bombing in History”," Middle East Report 140 (May/June 1986).
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