The World Today
5 June 2014 , Volume 70, Number 3

The dissident intellectual discusses America’s reach under Obama, Scottish independence and the one-state solution in Israel-Palestine


Photo: Chris Felver/Getty


In the past, you have described the United States as playing a ‘rent-a-thug’ role in the world. Has that era ended with the Obama presidency?
Not really. Obama himself has introduced innovations. He’s running by far the most extensive global terrorism campaign in the world, the drone campaign, which even US officials agree, no one accepts as legitimate. Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA, recently said that no country, with the exception of Israel and Afghanistan, accepts our legal basis for the drone assassination campaign. He’s probably wrong about Afghanistan. There used to be some notion of the presumption of innocence. Lawyers will remember this old thing called the Magna Carta. After 800 years, we’ll be commemorating its death next year.

But if you look at South America, the US has become extraordinarily disengaged
Well, I don’t think that’s quite the way to say it. The US has been expelled from South America. This is something of really historic importance. In the past 10 or 15 years, most of South America, for the first time since the conquistadors, has extricated itself from Western domination. For the past century and a half, that’s been US domination. It’s now pursuing a pretty independent course. That’s something quite new in international affairs.

So people who say America is withdrawing are naïve?
Not naïve, they’re taking the standard view in the West that what we do is right and what others do is wrong. So therefore if we’re being expelled from South America, that means we’re deciding to withdraw.

Let’s look at Russia. It’s now acting as a counterweight to the US, in Ukraine and Syria. Is that a positive thing?
I think it’s an odd way to put it. It’s true that Russia’s acting as a counter-balance, but in its region, in Ukraine. It’s not acting as a counter-balance in, say, Mexico. In one way it is somewhat like the Cold War. The Cold War was in the region of Russia, not in the region of the United States. The United States has red lines – certain things can’t be transgressed. But if you look, the red lines are at the borders of other countries. The red lines are not in the Caribbean and the Pacific off the coast of California. The red lines are in Ukraine and Chinese waters.
The West accepts reflexively that the United States should own the world, but other countries don’t necessarily accept that. There’s a reason, after all, why in international polls including the one released by BBC last December, the United States is overwhelmingly in the lead in the answer to the question, ‘Which country is the greatest threat to world peace?’ No one else is even close.

So you understand Putin’s motivation?
Ukraine is integral to traditional Russian history. You know the history. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev made a pretty remarkable concession. He agreed to let Germany be unified and even be part of NATO, a hostile military alliance. Not trivial, considering the history of the past century. There was a quid pro quo, and NATO would not advance one inch to the east. That was the promise from Bush and Secretary of State James Baker.

But this wasn’t a real promise. There’s no documentary evidence of this
That’s right, the Americans said it was a verbal. Of course Nato moved right away to East Germany. When Gorbachev complained, he was told, ‘If you’re naïve enough to take our word for it, that’s your problem. It was just a gentlemen’s agreement.’ Clinton then followed and moved much farther to the east. Russia is an authoritarian and aggressive state, but from the point of view of their security interests, if Ukraine were to fall into the Western orbit and even to join NATO, that would be pretty serious.

How far do you think Putin is going to go?
Well, what he’s said is that he’s in favour of negotiations and moves towards some kind of federation. I presume that’s what he means.

Last year, Parliament stopped Britain joining in a proposed US missile strike on Syria, and it seems Obama was happy that it did so. How do you understand this?
First of all, it was very likely Obama was going to lose a congressional vote. It rarely happens, but in this case Obama did go to Congress, as the constitution requires, requesting authorization. It looked pretty chancy. There was almost no support around the world for it. The British Parliament was not out on a limb. So Obama was in a difficult situation. He had established a red line, namely, ‘Use chemical weapons, we attack’. He was faced with two problems. One is it wasn’t certain who was responsible for the chemical weapons attack, and it is still not certain. And the administration had no support. So Russia’s offer really saved Obama from a difficult situation.

So you don’t interpret this as a lack of war-like intention?
That’s what John McCain would say. The right-wing hawks, in fact liberal hawks, are very angry at Obama for not having a sufficiently militaristic posture. That’s an old story. Go back 20 years and people like Norman Podhoretz were writing about ‘sickly inhibitions’ against the use of force in the United States. Yes, that’s the position that exists undoubtedly. Not particularly on the right. It’s a liberal position, too.

Moving closer to home, I have read that you are in favour of Scottish independence. Is that so?
That’s a comment on the British press. I was asked what I thought about it, and I said, ‘I haven’t studied the matter in any detail and therefore I can’t answer your question, but my intuitive feeling would be for independence. However, I can’t take a position.’ All that remained from this when it reached the press, ‘favouring independence’.

So nationalism is not a positive thing for you?
I don’t think nationalism is a positive thing. I think it’s a negative thing, but devolution sometimes is a positive thing. It depends how far it goes. There are very interesting developments in Europe altogether. There’s the centralizing effect of the European Union, with so many decisions made in Brussels, but there’s also a reaction in favour of regionalism all over Europe – Catalonia, the Basque country, Asturias, Scotland, and even in France. I think there’s something healthy about the move against supra-nationalism and towards local authority and local autonomy. It has its advantages. It has its negative aspects, too.

Such as?
It can lead to racist and nationalist extremism. It’s a mixed story.

There’s a chance that Britain may vote to leave the European Union which would reduce the weight of the EU in the world. Does that matter?
I think it would be a bad idea for Britain to leave, but the EU is quite busy trying to destroy itself as a force in the world. I don’t think Britain has to help very much. The austerity policies that go back to the Bundesbank have been very harmful to Europe.

You have been critical of US policy towards Iran in the past. Don’t you think the goal of stopping Iran achieving nuclear weapons is worth pursuing?
Yes, and there are simple ways of doing it. One way would have been to have pursued the agreement between Brazil, Turkey and Iran in 2010 for Iran to ship all of its lowenriched uranium out of the country to be stored in Turkey, in return for the West providing Iran with isotopes for its medical reactors. As soon as Brazil and Turkey and Iran reached that agreement, they were bitterly denounced by the White House, and of course the press followed along. The Brazilian foreign minister, Celso Amorim, was irritated about that. He released a letter from Obama to Lula, then president of Brazil, in which Obama had proposed this agreement, probably on the assumption that Iran wouldn’t accept and it would make a propaganda point.
But they did accept and immediately after that, Brazil and Turkey were bitterly denounced. Various excuses offered, but one possibility would have been to pursue that path. There is overwhelming international support for an effort that goes back to the Arab states to try to impose a nuclear weapons free zone in the region. Support is so strong that the United States and Britain have at least formally said, ‘We think it’s a good idea, but not now.’ In fact, it would be a good idea if the nuclear weapons states lived up to their legal obligation to pursue Article 6 of the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty which requires them to work towards nuclear disarmament.

You mean the US, Britain, France, Russia and China should lead the way?
But they’re in fact doing the opposite. They’re expanding their nuclear weapons systems, the United States as well. The United States is planning under Obama to spend an estimated $1 trillion over the next several decades in carrying the nuclear weapons system forward. That’s hardly consistent with the NPT.

With John Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian peace process stalled, people are increasingly talking about a one-state solution. Is that the answer?
I think the discourse on this is highly misleading. The usual discussion is that there are two options: either two states, or if that’s gone, then one state. A lot of Palestinians support that. They say: ‘Let’s give Israel the keys and let them take the whole place over, and we’ll run a civil rights struggle, a kind of anti-apartheid struggle.’ That’s all pie in the sky. In reality, these are the two options: one is the international consensus on two states; the second is Israel continues doing exactly what it is doing now, with US support. Israel doesn’t want to take over the Palestinian population. What they’re doing right before our eyes, is carrying out settlement and development programmes which carve up the West Bank – Gaza is kept as a prison – in a way which integrates into Israel the parts of the West Bank that they want. They are breaking up the region into sorts of canton. It’s designed that there will be very few Palestinians in the regions which are integrated into Israel. So in fact the famous 'demographic problem’ – too many Arabs in a Jewish state – is not going to happen. What will happen is that the proportion of Jews in Israel will go up as they bring in the settlers. That’s the second option. So if you can’t have a two-state solution, this is what’s going to happen. As long as the US and Britain support it.

So will the US policy in the Middle East ever change?
If people in the United States and, secondarily England, which is significant in this respect – if they sit passively and accept what is going on, then it cannot be changed. But we have options. When the British parliament voted to block a strike against Syria, it pretty much compelled the US to go along with that decision.
This applies to Israel too. US policies towards Israel are not set in stone. I’ve been writing and speaking about this for 50 years. In the past I used to have police protection when I gave at talk on it. This has changed radically. Now this is one of the leading topics on campus and thousands of people show up for talks and you never get a hostile question. Will this affect policy? That’s up to us. It can change.

Barbara Bush has lamented that the Kennedy, Clinton and Bush families have a stranglehold on politics. Is the US succumbing to political dynasties?
A marginal matter, in my opinion. Far more significant is the fact that most of the population is effectively disenfranchized – their opinions have no impact on policy – and that policy is set by very narrow sectors of privilege and economic power.