Chomsky Discusses the 2008 Election

This is the third of a three-part interview with Institute Professor Noam A. Chomsky, conducted in early September by Subrata Ghoshroy, a researcher in the Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group at MIT. In this part, Ghoshroy and Chomsky discussed the 2008 presidential election.

Another version of this interview was previously published at

Subrata Ghoshroy: If Obama wins, will that bring any changes in U.S. foreign policy?

Noam Chomsky: The prior question is whether he will win. My assumption all along is that McCain will probably win. Now that he has picked Sarah Palin as his vice president, I think those probabilities have increased, for reasons that are understood by party managers and have been expressed very well by McCain’s campaign manager.

He said the election is not about issues, it is about character and personality, and so on. Meaning, it is not a serious election. That is the way U.S. elections are run. Issues are marginalized. They don’t talk about them and the media coverage is about Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons or Sarah Palin’s pregnant daughter.

McCain is supposed to be a specialist on national security issues. Why? Suppose that some Russian pilot was shot down bombing heavily populated areas in Kabul and tortured by Reagan’s freedom fighters in the l980s. Well, we might feel sorry for him, but does that make him an expert on national security?

But McCain is an expert on national security because he was shot down bombing heavily populated urban areas in Hanoi and he was tortured by the Vietnamese. Well, we feel sorry for him, but he is no expert on national security. But you can’t say that. These elections are run by the public relations industry. The intellectual community goes along. Issues are marginalized. …

In that terrain, the Republicans have a big advantage. They also have a formidable slander and vilification machine which has yet to go into full operation. They can appeal to latent racism, as they are already doing. They can construct a class issue. Obama is the elite Harvard liberal; McCain is the down to earth ordinary American, and it so happens that he is one of the richest people in the Senate.

Same thing they pulled for Bush. You have to vote for Bush because he is the kind of guy you would like to meet in a bar and have a beer with; he wants to go back to his Ranch in Texas and cut brush. In reality, he was a spoiled fraternity boy who went to an elite university and joined a secret society where the future rulers of the world are trained, and was able to succeed in politics because his family had wealthy friends.

I am convinced, personally, that Bush was trained to mispronounce words to say things like “mis-underestimate” or “nu-cu-ler” so liberal intellectuals would make jokes about it; then the Republican propaganda machine could say see these elitist liberals who run the world are making fun of us ordinary guys who did not go to Harvard (but he did go to Yale, but forget it).

These are games run by the public relations industry, which is a huge industry. It spends enormous resources manipulating attitudes and opinions. They design and control elections so that the public in effect is marginalized.

They keep away from issues for a very good reason. We know a lot about American public opinion. It is a very heavily polled country, mainly because business wants to keep its finger on the public pulse. So there is a ton of information, valid information.

On a host of major issues, domestic and international, both political parties are well to the right of the population. So therefore, you don’t want to talk about issues, not if you want to keep the business parties in power.

Further, the population is aware of this, but the press won’t publish it: 80 percent of the population says the country is run by a few big interests, looking out for themselves, not the benefit of the people. By about 3-1, people object to the fact that issues are not at the center of the campaigns. They want issues to be discussed, not personalities.

Party managers know that, but they won’t go along with it; it is too dangerous. They have got to make sure that the two factions of the business party, Republicans and Democrats, stay in power. So you don’t deal with public concerns.

SG: Some in the Left and progressive community say that Obama’s campaign is a historic opportunity.

NC: I prefer that Obama be elected without any illusions. He is a centrist Democrat who will very likely back away from the more extreme, crazed elements of the Bush programs, but will go pretty much to the center.

After all, what is traditional U.S. policy? So people were outraged by the Bush doctrine of preventive war? What was the Clinton doctrine? It was official. The Clinton doctrine was explicit, it was literally more extreme: The U.S. has the right to use force unilaterally to protect markets and access to raw materials without even the pretexts that Bush insisted on.

He [Clinton] said it quietly in a message to Congress. He was not brazen; he was not waving his fist in their face. We could pretend it was not there. Why did they bomb Serbia? It can’t be reported here because it conflicts with the image of America’s nobility and Serb villainy. We know from the highest levels of the Clinton administration, but it can’t be reported.

Strobe Talbot, the highest Clinton administration official in charge of Eastern

European affairs, wrote an introduction to a book by his associate John Norris, in which he says: If you want to understand the thinking at highest levels of the Clinton Administration during the Kosovo war, this is the book that you have to read.

Norris speaks with full acquaintance of the Clinton administration at top level. What does Norris say? He says that the bombing had nothing to do with concern with Kosovar Albanians. It was because Serbia was not carrying out the required social and economic reforms. In other words, it was the last holdout in Europe to the Clintonite neo-liberal policies.

That is straight from the top level of the Clinton administration. You won’t find a word about it in the press or in the intellectual journals because it conflicts with the party line.

This is a very free country, but also a much disciplined country. Intellectuals keep to the party line. They don’t depart very far. Even though they are free to and they won’t be punished for it. …

The same is true of Iran, the major upcoming foreign policy issue. The mere fact that the U.S. and its collaborators happen to be opposed by most of the world and by the majority of the American population cannot be published. Nobody knows it.

Going back to the election, it is the same story, major issues of concern to the population have to be marginalized. It must stay focused on personalities; on character; on qualities. Everything we hear about McCain is that he is a war hero and so on.

Even liberal critics, like James Carroll in the Boston Globe, says of this noble character that people who opposed the Vietnam war have to go to McCain to apologize. Why do we have to go to McCain to apologize? In Russia, did people who opposed the invasion of Afghanistan go to some pilot who was shot down to apologize? American and western intellectuals can’t understand this, can’t comprehend this.…

Take Obama, I think that the talk about the surge is mostly false, but let’s suppose it were true. Suppose that the U.S. surge had succeeded in cutting down violence in Iraq. What would that mean? That would mean that Bush was almost as successful as Putin was in Chechnya. The Russians destroyed the place, there were massacres, but it is quiet, it is rebuilding. The New York Times says there is a building boom, there is electricity. Do we praise Putin for that? No! we condemn him for that.

The fact that they were able to pacify a country, you don’t praise them for that. On the other hand, if the U.S. were able to achieve anything like that in Iraq, it would lead to accolades and praise. And Obama would be silenced. After all, he had no principled criticism of the war. His only criticism was that it was pointless, silly, or waste of money.

SG: Or, that it was a distraction from the war in Afghanistan, which has become the standard line. It gives the Democrats a chance to be for a war.

NC: It is kind of interesting. As the pretexts for the Iraq war are collapsing, weapons of mass destruction, promoting democracy, all of that, and it becomes harder to stand up to Iraqi opinion and even the Iraqi government which is pressing for withdrawal.

As all of that is happening, there is a little honesty beginning to creep in about the real reasons for the war. Washington Post editors had a very interesting comment when Obama made his speech saying that Afghanistan is the top priority. They said he is making a terrible mistake; the priority is Iraq because Iraq is the country where the oil resources are, which is at the center of the Middle East’s energy producing region. So, Iraq must be the top priority.

Finally, they are telling the real reasons for the war, after lying about it since 2003. OK, no weapons of mass destruction, no promoting democracy, no liberation. We want to maintain control over energy resources. That’s why we invaded. Sure.

SG: And Afghanistan?

NC: You can have a low intensity war going on for 30 years where you send predator drones to bomb madrassas in Pakistan and kill dozens of people. Who cares?