Global Policy Forum

'This Action Is a Call for a Lawless World

January 2-15, 1999

Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the founder of modern linguistic science and one of the most important academic-intellectual figures of the post-War world. He is also perhaps the most radical critic of post-War United States foreign policy, one whose fearless criticism has always been supported by detailed documentation and analysis. In this telephone interview with V.K. Ramachandran from his home in Massachusetts, Chomsky speaks in detail on the armed attack by the United States and Britain on Iraq and on the strategic background to U.S. policy towards Iraq. He characterises the bombing of Iraq as a war crime. Excerpts:

The United States has said that it bombed Iraq because it produces weapons of mass destruction, it constitutes a special threat to its neighbours and the world, particularly because of its leader, and it refused to cooperate with UNSCOM. Would you comment on that justification for its latest military action and on the legality of that action?

Noam Chomsky: I agree that Saddam Hussein is a great danger to everyone within his reach, just as he was in the 1980s, when his worst crimes were committed. It is, however, elementary logic that that cannot be the reason why the U.S. and Britain are opposing him. His war crimes were committed with the strong support of the United States and Britain, even after the invasion of Kuwait. Furthermore, the United States turned immediately to direct support for Saddam Hussein in March 1991, when he suppressed an uprising in the South that might have overthrown his rule.

As for his weapons of mass destruction, although that threat is also real, Iraq is by no means the only country with such weapons. You do not have to go very far from Iraq in either direction to find other examples of such countries, and the major powers are, of course, the worst threat in this respect. But even if we simply focus on Iraq, the bombing cannot have anything to do with limiting weapons of mass destruction, because the fact is that the bombing will very likely enhance those programmes. The only restriction that has existed - and it has been an effective restriction - is the regular inspection. The nuclear weapons programme has apparently been reduced to nothing or very little because of the inspections. UNSCOM inspectors have undoubtedly been impeded, but have nevertheless severely limited Iraq's weapons development capacity and have destroyed plenty of weapons. It is generally assumed, by the U.S. as well, that UNSCOM's efforts will either be terminated or marginalised very much as a result of the bombing. So that cannot be the reason for the bombing. N. RAM

Although I agree that Saddam Hussein remains a serious threat to peace, there happens to be a way to deal with that question, one that has been established under international law. That procedure is the foundation of international law and international order and is also the supreme law of the land in the United States. If a country, say the United States, feels that a threat is posed to peace, it is to approach the Security Council, which has the sole authority to react to that threat. The Security Council is required to pursue all peaceful means to deal with the threat to peace, and if it determines that all such means have failed, it may then specifically authorise the use of force. Nothing else is permitted under international law, except with regard to the question, here irrelevant, of self-defence.

The U.S. and Britain have simply announced, very clearly and loudly, that they are violent criminal states that are intent on destroying totally the fabric of international law, a fabric that has been built up laboriously over many years. They have announced that they will do as they please and will use violence as they please, independently of what anyone else thinks. In my view, that is the sole significance of the bombing and is probably the reason for it.

Even the timing of the bombing was chosen so as to make this position very evident. The bombing began at exactly 5 p.m. EST in the U.S., just as the Security Council was opening an emergency session to deal with the emerging crisis in Iraq. The U.S. chose that moment to launch a war crime - an aggressive illegal act of force - against Iraq without even notifying the Council. That was surely intended and understood to be a message of contempt for the Security Council. It is in fact another underscoring of the lesson of the Gulf war, which was explained very clearly by George Bush when missiles were falling on Baghdad. At that time, he announced his famous New World Order in four simple words - "What we say, goes." And if you don't like it, get out of the way.

The more ominous aspect of this situation is that it proceeds - in the U.S. completely and in Britain to a large extent - not only without any criticism but without public awareness about it. I have yet to find a single word in the mainstream media or in other discussion in educated sectors suggesting that it might be a good idea for the U.S. to observe the principles of international domestic law. If this question is ever raised, and that happens only at the margins, it is dismissed as a technicality. It may be a technicality for a criminal state but for others it is not a technicality, any more than a law against homicide is a technicality.

This action is in fact a call for a lawless world in which the powerful will rule. The powerful happen to be the United States and Britain, which is by now a pathetic puppy dog that has abandoned any pretence of being an independent state.

This time the declared objectives of the attack were open-ended - "to degrade Iraqi facilities" and send "a powerful message" to Saddam Hussein. The attack also came with the warning that the U.S. had, in certain circumstances, the authority to bomb Iraq "without delay, diplomacy or warning''.

The declared aim to "degrade facilities" was designed purposely to indicate that it is irrelevant. There is no measure of whether you have succeeded in "degrading facilities". If you shoot a pistol at one building, you have degraded the facilities. That is a meaningless war aim and was understood to be so, which means that it was not the war aim at all. You cannot have a meaningless war aim when you carry out an act of aggression.

The warning you mentioned reiterates the real message: the United States is determining, not for the first time, that it has the right to use force as it wishes. Nothing new about that, but it is now being declared in an unusually brazen form and with the total acquiescence of the doctrinal system of educated sectors. I am sure that the message is being understood where it is being sent; in my opinion, the message is being sent largely to the states of the region.

There are background issues here that are undoubtedly decisive. It is obvious to everyone that the main concern of external powers in West Asia is oil, or energy production. In the first place, there is now a consensus among geologists that the world may be heading for a serious oil crisis. In spite of new technology and deep-sea drilling, the rate of discovery of oil has been declining from about the 1960s. It is expected that within a decade or two, the magic halfway mark - or the destruction of half the world's known exploitable hydrocarbon energy resources - will be reached, and after that the way is downhill.

Secondly, the rate of use of oil is accelerating. Close to half of the total use of oil in history has been in the last 20 years, that is, after the oil price rise. The third crucial point is that a very substantial part of the world's oil resources is in the Arabian peninsula-Persian Gulf region. The resources that exist elsewhere are nowhere near as abundant or as exploitable. The share of West Asian oil in total world production is getting back to what it was in about 1970, and that share will increase. That means that the importance of the region as a strategic centre and as a lever of control over world affairs is increasing. It is a very volatile region, very heavily armed, with many conflicts and with most of its population brutally suppressed in one way or another. For the last 50 years, the U.S. has been determined to run that region with the assistance of Britain. Nobody else, particularly the people of the region, is supposed to have any significant role there. All this makes for a highly inflammatory situation.

The current alliance system to control West Asian oil in the interests of the United States includes a very visible Turkish-Israel alliance, and also includes the Palestinian Authority. What is called the "peace process" in West Asia is an effort by the United States and Israel to eliminate the Palestinian problem by imposing a kind of a Bantustan settlement on the Palestinian people. In this the Palestinian Authority has the role of controlling and suppressing the Palestinian people in the manner of the leadership elements in countries such as Transkei under apartheid. The Central Intelligence Agency is directly and openly involved in Palestinian-Israel interactions.

The other countries of the region do not like this arrangement, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria have been taking steps towards a kind of alignment that would counter it. The U.S. is very concerned, especially about a developing relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, countries that have historically been enemies but have been making very notable steps towards rapprochement. It is worth remembering that the U.S. is isolated internationally not only on the issue of Iraq but also on the issue of Iran. There is a growing conflict between the U.S. and Europe about bringing Iran back into the international system. While Europe and Japan are strongly in favour of doing so, the U.S. is opposed, and if Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Egypt improve their relationship with Iran, the prospect is a threatening one for the United States. The use of force and violence is intended as a warning to these countries that they should not proceed too far because the United States will act with extreme violence if it has to. In my opinion, the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan a few months ago - Sudan was the more blatant war crime - was probably intended to send the same message. Early this year a high-level planning document was released through the Freedom of Information Act, one that got no publicity here but was very interesting. It was a secret 1995 study of the Strategic Command of the United States, which is responsible for the nuclear arsenal. The study is called "Essentials of Post Cold War Deterrence". Do you remember Nixon's "Madman theory", which suggested the U.S. should appear like a mad man who fights everyone? This document resurrects that theory and says that the U.S.

should use its nuclear arsenal to portray itself as irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked. That should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries. It hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some elements of the U.S. government may appear to be out of control can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts in the minds of an adversary's decision-makers. The Nixon theory was sort of informal, but remember that this is an official planning document of the Strategic Command in 1995. I think the press knew what it was doing when it basically kept it secret. The document is, after all, rather revealing and it provides interesting background to the current actions.

It is interesting that this time the United States failed to muster even the support it did last time in the United Nations.

If you look back to those months of negotiations, Germany and Japan were at first opposed to military action. Their arms were gradually twisted and they went along, but never participated. The most they were willing to do was to pay for the action. The attitudes of the states of the region were very mixed. These really had their arms twisted (Yemen, for example, was threatened with serious economic sanctions if it did no got along). Finally, there was a vote, but it was an unclear vote and, incidentally, an illegal vote, because China abstained, and support for the use of force has to be unanimous in the Security Council.

So although there was a kind of support, a good bit of the world knew that they were being dragged into conflict and that there still were opportunities for a negotiated settlement that the U.S. was trying to avoid. Every successive action has cut down that support even more: at present, Saudi Arabia will not permit U.S. planes to base there to fly missions and this time even Kuwait would not support the U.S. action. The people of the region, of course, are always opposed to U.S. policy - that was true in 1991 too.

And Secretary-General Kofi Annan has played a far more positive role on the question of Iraq than Perez de Cuellar did in 1991.

Kofi Annan is barely quoted in the U.S. - you just find a few sentences here and there. The message, however, is clear enough; he called it a "sad day" for the United Nations and for the world. He is being bypassed; the United States does not want the United Nations to become involved because it knows that it cannot get support there. As I said, even the timing of the bombing was a slap in the face for Kofi Annan and the United Nations.

It now appears - we can't be certain - that Richard Butler sent his report directly to the White House before it was sent to the Security Council. There are also reports from anonymous high-level officials in the United Nations that the Report was written in connection with the White House (although I do not know about that). The Clinton administration has announced officially that it began the planning for the bombing before the U.N. session because it already had the Report, which, of course, is completely improper and underscores the fact that the leadership of UNSCOM is working with the Clinton administration.

Would you discuss another aspect of the timing of the attack, that is, the widespread conviction that President Clinton attacked Iraq now because of the impeachment proceedings against him?

That is very widely held; I think it is very implausible. If you think about it, the coincidence of timing only harms Clinton and undermines his credibility further. His credibility is low, and to use this action as an attempt to delay the impeachment hearings by a day simply makes him look ridiculous. On the other hand, there is one noteworthy feature of the coincidence of timing. The House debate on impeachment has been totally cynical on both sides, and Republicans and Democrats are making it very clear that there is no issue of principle involved at all. That is clear from the fact that the vote is on pure party lines. On issues of principle, you cannot get a clear division between Democrats and Republicans. That is outlandish, since they are more or less identical on most issues, and no issue of principle is ever going to divide them right down the line.

The Democrats are using the coincidence of timing in order to build up future political campaigns. In the next campaign they will take the line that when our brave sons and daughters put their lives on the line to defend the country, the evil Republicans attacked the Commander-in-Chief. The coincidence of timing, then, is harmful to Clinton personally but it could be helpful to the public relations efforts of the Democratic Party.

After the cessation of bombing there have been statements to the effect that, on the one hand, the U.S. reserves the right to strike again at any time and, on the other hand, that the next phase is very much a diplomatic phase.

The U.S. is simply saying that as far as it is concerned, all options are open, and nothing else matters - not international law, not the World Court, not the United Nations, and not the opinions of the countries and peoples of the region. If our purposes can be served by diplomacy, we will use diplomacy; if they can be served by force, we will use force.

The attacks have shattered Iraq's infrastructure further. It is clear that the recent economic history of Iraq is one of a human development disaster and profound regression in areas of earlier achievement, such as health, nutrition and education. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been reported as saying that the U.S. "completely disowns" any responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and Tony Blair has said that "nutritional problems" - that is a quote - in Iraq are not the result of sanctions. Would you comment on this? In your perception, how long will sanctions last?

Every time Tony Blair opens his mouth, he looks more disgusting and ridiculous, and his performance marked a painful and shameful day in the history of Britain. As for Madeleine Albright, her comments over the years have captured very clearly the moral level of U.S. actions. In 1996, an interviewer on "60 Minutes" on national television asked her for her reaction to reports from the United Nations that half a million Iraqi children had died from the sanctions. Her answer was, "Well, this is a price that we feel that we are willing to pay." So we - we - are willing to pay the price of dead Iraqi children. We do not care if we carry out mass slaughter; the deaths could, I think, properly be called a form of genocide.

Take a look at the situation right now. There is a temporary oil glut and prices are very low, and that is harmful to the big energy companies, which are overwhelmingly U.S. and British. The U.S. Government does not want the price to go any lower, because its economy relies quite heavily on recycling petrodollars from other countries. These go to U.S. treasury securities, arms purchases, construction projects and so on. The U.S. will be happy for oil prices to go up and does not want Iraqi oil on the market right now. They are hence quite happy to bomb a refinery in Basra and hold back oil exports.

Furthermore, Iraq will be brought back into the system sooner or later. Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world and as an oil shortage develops and prices begin to rise, the U.S. and Britain will bring Iraq back into the market. They do, however, have a problem. Because of the events of the past years, their competitors France and Russia (and also Italy) now have an inside track on Iraqi oil production. The U.S. and Britain are not going to tolerate that, since Iraq is much too rich to allow it to fall into the hands of competitors. That will take some complicated manoeuvring: the U.S. and Britain have enough force to achieve their ends, but it won't be easy. That is another potential conflict between the U.S. and the European Union. (When I speak of the E.U., I exclude Britain, which is a client of the U.S.)

Putting that relatively long-term issue aside, how long will the sanctions go on? As long as the U.S. and Britain insist that the Iraqi people be punished and that Iraqi oil be kept off the market, and as long as they are so powerful in the world that other forces cannot counter-react.

The official version appears to be that sanctions are in place because Iraq is not cooperating with UNSCOM.

That is the pretext, but that is a joke. The U.S. does not cooperate with international law. Are they therefore proposing sanctions against the U.S.?

The relative insensitivity of U.S. public opinion towards suffering in Iraq has been quite extraordinary. The U.S. line on Iraq, after all, does not play in any other part of the world.

For one thing, the U.S. public does not know much about it. The picture that is presented is that Saddam Hussein is the worst person since Attila the Hun. If you asked the person on the street, the reaction would be that he is torturing his people and the U.S. is trying to get rid of him in every way it can in order to save the people of Iraq. And if people are being killed, that's Saddam Hussein's fault: why doesn't he do what we tell him?

On the other hand, there are lots of actions all over the place. They are small and disorganised but there is quite a lot of protest action. This is by no means the only human development catastrophe that does not arouse attention here. During the 1980s, about a million and a half people were killed by the South African authorities, backed by the U.S. and Britain, in surrounding countries. Today, one of the worst human development catastrophes in history is taking place in Russia. Who knows how many millions of people have died as a result of the imposition of the market regime? People do not care about that either. Since U.S. policy is by definition benevolent, if millions of people are dying in Russia because of the imposition of market rule, it must be their fault.

The U.S. has now offered to "strengthen its engagement with the Iraqi opposition". Do you consider this to be part of the larger strategic objective of which you spoke?

I would be very careful about that. The U.S. has been strongly opposed to the Iraqi opposition. In 1988, when Saddam Hussein was a great friend and ally, the U.S. blocked any criticism of the gas attacks. At that point, according to Iraqi opposition leaders to whom I have spoken, Secretary of State George Schultz ordered U.S. diplomats not to have any contacts with Iraqi dissidents because that might bother their friend Saddam Hussein. These orders remained in place and were formally and publicly reiterated in March 1991 - that is, after the Gulf war - while the U.S. was backing Saddam Hussein's massacre of the Shi'ites in the south of Iraq.

The U.S. has sought to work with the military elements of the Iraqi opposition. The idea has been that there should be a military coup that would replace Saddam Hussein with a more or less equivalent regime but without Saddam Hussein. Those efforts have been penetrated by Iraqi intelligence and have failed.

The democratic Iraqi opposition itself claims to this day that it has been receiving essentially no support from the United States. That was pretty much conceded by Secretary Albright just two days ago. When asked about this matter she said: "We have now come to the determination that the Iraqi people would benefit if they had a government that really represented them." She said this in December 1998, when the U.S. suddenly had a religious conversion and decided that Iraqis would benefit if they had a government that represented them. That means that until now the U.S. did not take that position - which is correct. Until now, the position has been that the Iraqi people have to be controlled by an iron-fisted military junta, without Saddam Hussein if possible, since he is an embarrassment.

But shall we take Secretary Albright at her word today, has the religious conversion taken place? No, it is very unlikely that anything has changed except tactics. The U.S. government does not want a democratic opposition to gain power in Iraq any more than it would want such an event to occur in Saudi Arabia. No, it wants these countries to be ruled by dictatorships that are under U.S. influence.

There is a lot to criticize in the Iraqi democratic opposition, but part of the reason why they are so fragmented and at odds with each other is that they just do not get support from the outside. That should not surprise us: where in the world does the U.S. support the democratic opposition? We know how it acts in Central America and in Africa - why should it be different in Iraq?

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.