Chomsky on War

Below are some questions and answers from the ZNet forum system, the ZNet forums are a benefit offered to ZNet sustainers.Though the questions have been edited for space, we have tried to retain the original intent of the questions.


Reasons For War
In recent discussions I’ve had with people who support a war on Iraq one of the issues for them which seems to trump all the others is that they feel Saddam hates America.Are you aware of any actions or statements by Saddam Hussein that would support such an opinion? Has Saddam ever threatened the U.S.?

I have no idea what’s in Saddam’s head, and even if he hates America (whatever that means), the idea that that could be a justification for war is so lunatic that it’s not worth discussing. Even the Nazis didn’t go that far.

Has Saddam ever posed a threat to the US? The idea verges on absurdity. Up to 1990, when he was committed by far his worst crimes, he was a friend and ally of those running the show in Washington today. Far from seeing him as a threat, they even provided him with means to develop weapons of mass destruction. The Gulf war and the sanctions reduced Iraq to the weakest military force in the region. Even the countries Saddam invaded don’t regard him as a threat, and have been trying for years to reintegrate Iraq into the region, over strong US objections. The US is alone in the world, to my knowledge, in regarding Iraq as a threat, either military or terrorist. By “US” here I mean the image portrayed by government-media since September, primarily, which has had its effects on popular attitudes.

Super Patriotism, The Media, and Ideological Obedience
Where does this superpatriotism come from, this arrogance (as many non-Americans see it), this idea that the US is almost God-like, that it can do no wrong, that whatever it says or does -no matter how unfair objectively- is ok simply because it’s the US that does it? When did it originate? Was it always a feature of the American psyche? I suspect the elites and their propaganda system promote this actively and consciously, but did they create it?

It is pretty astonishing. Within two years the Bush administration has succeeded in making the US the most feared nation in the world, and the most disliked, even hated. That’s quite an achievement. Conspiracy theorists might conclude they’re really working for Bin Laden.

On the superpatriotism, yes, it runs through the culture, from way back, but it’s not unusual. Britain in its day in the sun was much the same, and the echoes still reverberate. The classic essay on “humanitarian intervention” by John Stuart Mill is a remarkable example — and interesting particularly because he was a person of quite unusual intelligence and integrity. And the same was true of every other conquering power that I know anything about, even small ones, like Israel.

As to what the roots are, that’s a hard question. The consistency suggests it can’t be attributed solely to historical peculiarities, though these surely exist. In the US, for example, it was necessary to find some justification for eliminating the indigenous population and running the economy on slavery (including the economy of the north in the early days; cotton was the oil of the 19th century industrial revolution). And the only way to justify having your boot on someone’s neck is that you are uniquely magnificent and they are uniquely awful. A leading source of racism, which persist to the present moment, so deeply entrenched in the culture — of the West generally — that it is far beyond consciousness and can barely be understood by properly educated people when it is pointed out.

So the answers to your questions are not likely to be simple. Some have sought evolutionary scenarios. The trouble is that these can be concocted for just about anything, and the comparative evidence tells us very little (violent chimpanzees, peaceful bonobo, just as closely related; etc.).

I am wondering, what is your general assessment of the media’s treatment of the war in this stage? While it is noticeable that an elite split on the war is a reason for more openness in the media, are you noticing more critical coverage than usual?

I haven’t looked at TV except sporadically, including CNN. My impression (it’s only that) is that it’s basically cheerleading for the home team. Almost worthless, except that one can tease out the basic facts if one can stand the incredible bias, not even concealed. Press coverage is somewhat more complex, though it still overwhelmingly proceeds within the anticipated propaganda framework of an invading army. If you want to look into the matter, a good way would be to compare what you find abroad, not too hard now with internet access for British, Irish, and other press, often in translation these days. I don’t like to give a very general impression, and without more specific query, wouldn’t know how to proceed.

A suicide attack by military forces resisting an invasion can’t possibly be called an act of terrorism. Suppose the Iraqi army were surrounding New York and the Iraqi air force were bombing it unopposed. If an American carried out a suicide attack against the invading forces, would anyone call it “terrorism”? Or a violation of the laws of war? Or would we rather regard it as remarkable heroism, and grant the person an honored place in history?

The US isn’t committing state terrorism. This is aggression, pure and simple, a textbook case. Even CNN provides more than enough information to make that conclusion crystal clear. One can perhaps argue that the aggression is justified on some grounds, but there can hardly be any argument about what it is. Again, simply reverse the picture. Suppose that huge Iraqi armies had invaded the US, were attacking cities, etc. Would we call it “state terrorism”?

It’s true that news reporting doesn’t adopt that framework when the US is the invader, but that gives a good part of the answer to your first question, I think.

Lessons In Power
I am curious to know where you would stand vis a vis North Korea in the event of military action.

As far as I am aware, there’s a straightforward reason why the US is not attacking North Korea: it has massed artillery which would quickly wipe out Seoul. I presume that Pentagon planners are working on some way to counter that: maybe precision-guided weapons, maybe tactical nukes, who knows? Certainly not me.

South Korea, Japan, China, in fact just about everyone sane hopes for a peaceful solution of these problems. The least bad approach, though not a great one, is to follow their lead. There are no delightful outcomes in view, but these seem the most hopeful.

Note that the US government is teaching the world a very ugly lesson: if you want to keep us from attacking you, you’d better have a credible deterrent. That’s one reason why so much of the mainstream establishment opposes Bush administration adventurism, including the Iraq war, only a special case. They can see that it is likely to increase proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction, terror, and other pretty awful outcomes, if only as a deterrent to a rogue superpower — as the US is regarded in much of the world, maybe most.

Outcomes And Alternatives To War
With this “war” now underway, and it becoming increasingly clear it will not be over as quickly as U.S. military planners led the public to believe, what outcomes for the war should those who opposed it be hoping for?

The choice was never restricted to war or murderous sanctions that destroy the society and strengthen the dictator. Another possibility was allowing the society to reconstitute so Iraqis could determine their own fate, in which case Saddam Hussein would probably have gone the way of a string of other tyrants supported by the present incumbents in Washington when they were supporting him, and plenty of others. Actions to prevent development of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems are a different matter — and should be undertaken throughout the region (in accord with UN Resolution 687, to which Bush-Blair-etc. selectively refer), and in fact the world; we may recall that the nuclear powers are committed to “good faith” efforts to eliminate these awful weapons, which may destroy us all.

Right now, what we should hope for is termination of a destructive war, vast reparations for the victims (or if that is too much to ask, at least aid, which they can use in their own way to reconstruct their society), and measures to increase the likelihood that repressive and brutal regimes will be contained and internally undermined. There’s no simple formula that applies for all cases.

The idea that the Iraqis can only be freed from a regime like Saddam’s through bombing is really disturbing. This seems to be the message the US is sending through Operation Iraqi Freedom.What, in your view, are alternative policies America could have pursued to help Iraqis other than resorting to a violent and destructive “liberation”?

Probably most of the population of the world regards the US as the major threat to world peace, which is a rather serious matter: a superpower threat to world peace is a threat to survival. If they’re right, the world would be much better off (for example, there’d be a higher chance for the survival of the species) if the current regime were eliminated. Or maybe even the institutions of the society. Does it follow that we all ought to join al-Qaeda and try to achieve that goal?

There are a great many horrible regimes in the world. To take just one, the world’s longest military occupation. There’s litttle doubt that those under the military occupation would be much better off if the occupation were terminated. Does it follow that we should bomb Tel Aviv?

It’s easy to continue. Such questions can, perhaps, be raised by those who regard themselves as God-like, entitled to determine how to use violence to “rid the world of evil,” as in fairy tales and ancient epics. Are we so exalted that we have the right to make such decisions?

We all agree that Iraqis would be better off without Hussein. Just as their subjects would have been better off without Ceausescu, Suharto, Marcos, Duvalier, Mobutu,….. — quite a long list. I’ve just listed those who were supported by the present incumbents in Washington, just as they supported Saddam Hussein. Some, like Ceausescu, were easily comparable to Saddam Hussein as tyrants and torturers. All were overthrown, from within. There’s every reason to believe that SH would have gone the same way if the US hadn’t insisted on devastating the civilian society, strengthening the tyrant, and compelling people to rely on him for survival — the primary effect of the US-UK sanctions, as has been pointed out for years by the Westerners who know Iraq best, the administrators of the UN programs, Denis Halliday and Hans van Sponeck — among others.

If there had been any interest in allowing Iraqis to determine their own fate, these considerations point the way. But there wasn’t. Hence the call that their torturers must use violence to “liberate them.” An intelligent Martian watching this would be bemused, to put it mildly.


At the time of the 1991 uprising there were many things that could have been done, had there been any interest in allowing Iraqis to run their own affairs. It would have been possible, for example, not to authorize Saddam to use military aircraft to crush the uprising. Or not to deny rebels access to captured Iraqi military equipment.

Inspectors were in the country constantly until 1998. If you review the details, you’ll find that US-UK actions contributed materially to their withdrawal. They didn’t improve the human rights situation, but they did carry out very extensive disarmament, to the extent that Iraq is now one of the weakest states in the region. Otherwise it’s unlikely the Bush administration would have attacked.

Leave a comment