Interview With Noam Chomsky about US Warplans

Various questions are circulating among people worried about war. On August 29, 2002, Michael Albert put some of these to Noam Chomsky, via email. Here are the questions and his responses…

1. Has Saddam Hussein been as evil as mainstream media says? Domestically? Internationally?

He is as evil as they come, ranking with Suharto and other monsters of the modern era. No one would want to be within his reach. But fortunately, his reach does not extend very far.

Internationally, Saddam invaded Iran (with Western support), and when that war was going badly turned to chemical weapons (also with Western support). He invaded Kuwait and was quickly driven out. A major concern in Washington right after the invasion was that Saddam would quickly withdraw, putting “his puppet in [and] everyone in the Arab world will be happy” (Colin Powell, then Chief of Staff). President Bush was concerned that Saudi Arabia might “bug out at the last minute and accept a puppet regime in Kuwait” unless the US prevented Iraqi withdrawal. The concern, in brief, was that Saddam would pretty much duplicate what the US had just done in Panama (except that Latin Americans were anything but happy). From the first moment the US sought to avert this “nightmare scenario.” A story that should be looked at with some care.

Saddam’s worst crimes, by far, have been domestic, including the use of chemical weapons against Kurds and a huge slaughter of Kurds in the late 80s, barbaric torture, and every other ugly crime you can imagine. These are at the top of the list of terrible crimes for which he is now condemned, rightly. It’s useful to ask how frequently the impassioned denunciations and eloquent expressions of outrage are accompanied by three little words: “with our help.”

The crimes were well known at once, but of no particular concern to the West. Saddam received some mild reprimands; harsh congressional condemnation was considered too extreme by prominent commentators. The Reaganites and Bush 1 continued to welcome the monster as an ally and valued trading partner right through his worst atrocities and well beyond. Bush authorized loan guarantees and sale of advanced technology with clear applications for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) right up to the day of the Kuwait invasion, sometimes overriding congressional efforts to prevent what he was doing. Britain was still authorizing export of military equipment and radioactive materials a few days after the invasion. When ABC correspondent and now ZNet Commentator Charles Glass discovered biological weapons facilities (using commercial satellites and defector testimony), his revelations were immediately denied by the Pentagon and the story disappeared. It was resurrected when Saddam committed his first real crime, disobeying US orders (or perhaps misinterpreting them) by invading Kuwait, and switched instantly from friend to reincarnation of Attila the Hun. The same facilities were then used to demonstrate his innately evil nature. When Bush 1 announced new gifts to his friend in December 1989 (also gifts to US agribusiness and industry), it was considered too insignificant even to report, though one could read about it in Z magazine at the time, maybe nowhere else. A few months later, shortly before he invaded Kuwait, a high-level Senate delegation, headed by (later) Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, visited Saddam, conveying the President’s greetings and assuring the brutal mass murderer that he should disregard the criticism he hears from maverick reporters here. Saddam had even been able to get away with attacking a US naval vessel, the USS Stark, killing several dozen crewmen. That is a mark of real esteem. The only other country to have been granted that privilege was Israel, in 1967. In deference to Saddam, the State Department banned all contacts with the Iraqi democratic opposition, maintaining this policy even after the Gulf war, while Washington effectively authorized Saddam to crush a Shi’ite rebellion that might well have overthrown him — in the interest of preserving “stability,” the press explained, nodding sagely.

That he’s a major criminal is not in doubt. That’s not changed by the fact that the US and Britain regarded his major atrocities as insignificant in the light of higher “reasons of state,” before the Gulf war and even after — facts best forgotten.

2. Looking into the future, is Saddam Hussein as dangerous as mainstream media says?

The world would be better off if he weren’t there, no doubt about that. Surely Iraqis would. But he can’t be anywhere near as dangerous as he was when the US and Britain were supporting him, even providing him with dual-use technology that he could use for nuclear and chemical weapons development, as he presumably did. 10 years ago the Senate Banking Committee hearings revealed that the Bush administration was granting licences for dual use technology and “materials which were later utilized by the Iraq regime for nuclear missile and chemical purposes.” Later hearings added more, and there are press reports and a mainstream scholarly literature on the topic (as well as dissident literature).

The 1991 war was extremely destructive, and since then Iraq has been devastated by a decade of sanctions, which probably strengthened Saddam himself (by weakening possible resistance in a shattered society), but surely reduced very significantly his capacity for war-making or support for terror. Furthermore, since 1991 his regime has been constrained by “no fly zones,” regular overflights and bombing, and very tight surveillance. Chances are that the events of Sept. 11 weakened him still further. If there are any links between Saddam and al-Qaeda, they would be far more difficult to maintain now because of the sharply intensified surveillance and controls. That aside, links are not very likely. Despite enormous efforts to tie Saddam to the 9-11 attacks, nothing has been found, which is not too surprising. Saddam and bin Laden were bitter enemies, and there’s no particular reason to suppose that there have been any changes in that regard.

The rational conclusion is that Saddam is probably less of a danger now than before 9-11, and far less of a threat than when he was enjoying substantial support from the US-UK (and many others). That raises a few questions. If Saddam is such a threat to the survival of civilization today that the global enforcer has to resort to war, why wasn’t that true a year ago? And much more dramatically, in early 1990?

3. How should the problem of the existence and use of weapons of mass destruction in the world today be dealt with?

They should be eliminated. The non-proliferation treaty commits countries with nuclear weapons to take steps towards eliminating them. The biological and chemical weapons treaties have the same goals. The main Security Council resolution concerning Iraq (687, 1991) calls for eliminating weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems from the Middle East, and working towards a global ban on chemical weapons. Good advice.

Iraq is nowhere near the lead in this regard. We might recall the warning of General Lee Butler, head of Clinton’s Strategic Command in the early 90s, that “it is dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron of animosities that we call the Middle East, one nation has armed itself, ostensibly, with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, and that inspires other nations to do so.” He’s talking about Israel of course. The Israeli military authorities claim to have air and armored forces that are larger and more advanced than those of any European NATO power (Yitzhak ben Israel, Ha’aretz, 4-16-02, Hebrew). They also announce that 12% of their bombers and fighter aircraft are permanently stationed in Eastern Turkey, along with comparable naval and submarine forces in Turkish bases, and armored forces as well, in case it becomes necessary to resort to extreme violence once again to subdue Turkey’s Kurdish population, as in the Clinton years. Israeli aircraft based in Turkey are reported to be flying reconnaisance flights along Iran’s borders, part of a general US-Israel-Turkey policy of threatening Iran with attack and perhaps forceful partitioning. Israeli analysts also report that joint US-Israel-Turkey air exercises are intended as a threat and warning to Iran. And of course to Iraq (Robert Olson, Middle East Policy, June 2002). Israel is doubtless using the huge US air bases in Eastern Turkey, where the US bombers are presumably nuclear-armed. By now Israel is virtually an offshore US military base.

And the rest of the area is armed to the teeth as well. If Iraq were governed by most Gandhi-like of foreseeable leaders, it would be developing weapons systems if it could, probably well beyond what it can today. That would very likely continue, perhaps even accelerate, if the US takes control of Iraq. India and Pakistan are US allies, but are marching forward with the development of WMD and repeatedly have come agonizingly close to using nuclear weapons. The same is true of other US allies and clients.

That is likely to continue unless there is a general reduction of armaments in the area.

Would Saddam agree to that? Actually, we don’t know. In early January 1991, Iraq apparently offered to withdraw from Kuwait in the context of regional negotiations on reduction of armaments, an offer that State Department officials described as serious and negotiable. But we know no more about it, because the US rejected it without response and the press reported virtually nothing. It is, however, of some interest that at that time — right before the bombing — polls revealed that by 2-1 the US public supported the proposal that Saddam had apparently made, preferring it to bombing. Had people been allowed to know any of this, the majority would surely have been far greater. Suppressing the facts was an important service to the cause of state violence. Could such negotiations have gotten anywhere? Only fanatical ideologues can be confident. Could such ideas be revived? Same answer. One way to find out is to try.

4. Some argue that there is ample justification for treating Iraq’s potential for weapons of mass destruction differently from those of other countries because, under the terms of Security Council Resolution 687, agreed to by Saddam Hussein, Iraq is to be disarmed, in part as punishment for its flagrant violation of international law in invading Kuwait. Is the international community justified in trying to restrict Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction? If one accepts this argument, as put, what would be the international ramifications? Is there a different version of this argument with better logic and methodology, and what would be its implications?

As noted, 687 has other provisions, rather significant ones.

The invasion of Kuwait is one of Saddam’s lesser crimes. It is not very different from one of the footnotes to US crimes in its own traditional domains: the invasion of Panama a few months earlier, which didn’t have even a marginally credible pretext. The main difference is that the US could veto Security Council resolutions condemning the invasion, disregard the harsh condemnations from the Latin American democracies (barely reported), and basically do what it liked. It’s all removed from sanitized history for the same reasons. As I mentioned, Washington feared that Saddam would emulate the Panama invasion and worked hard to prevent it. In the region itself, the invasion of Kuwait, criminal as it was, doesn’t compare with the US-supported Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which left some 20,000 dead. And it’s embarrassingly easy to continue with much worse cases that we all know.

That aside, these arguments are somewhat beside the point. Those who believe that the Security Council resolutions of a decade ago (which said nothing about use of force) indirectly authorize an invasion have a very easy way to prove that they are serious in that claim: they can urge the US to approach the Security Council for Chapter VII authorization to use force. That will settle the matter. Authorization could probably be obtained: a veto is unlikely. But the US does not want such authorization, at least now, just as it refused it when it chose to bomb Afghanistan, though authorization would surely have been given. For such reasons alone, these discussions are irrelevant.

As for the “international community,” in practice, it means the US and whoever will go along with it.

More generally, it would make good sense to try to implement the non-proliferation treaty, the chemical and biological weapons treaties, and the relevant provisions of 687. And to proceed with more serious efforts at disarmament across the board. But any such steps would require US acquiescence, a remote contingency unless there are significant changes here.

5. Hasn’t the history of previous weapons inspections shown that weapons inspectors can be fooled, delayed, and otherwise prevented from actually accomplishing their task? Is there a viable inspections method or related policy, and could it be applied universally?

Sure they can be fooled. However, the weapons inspections were vastly more effective than bombing in destroying Iraq’s military capacities, and appear to have been largely successful. Going a step beyond, when was the last time there was a meaningful (or any) international inspection of Israel’s nuclear and (probably) chemical weapons facilities? Or those of the US? Inspection regimes should be established, and universalized, but that again requires US acquiescence.

6. During the recent Congressional hearings on Iraq, one witness stated that for inspections to be truly effective, a rapid reaction military force would be needed, so that Saddam Hussein could not prevent the inspectors from making a surprise visit to some site where improper activity was going on. The witness said there’s no way Iraq would agree to this, but by demanding such a force the U.S. would seize the high moral ground. Is such a force a necessary component of an effective inspection regime? Would the U.S. be on high moral ground? What reciprocal demands might others reasonably make of us?

Is the goal propaganda (“seizing the high moral ground”)? Or reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? If the former, we can dismiss the matter. If the latter, some obvious questions arise. Weapons inspection appears to have been highly effective, even if imperfect. Scott Ritter’s testimony on the topic is compelling, and I know of no serious refutation of it. Those who want to reduce the threat of WMD will, therefore, try to create the conditions for meaningful inspection, as required by resolution 687 and earlier ones, and supported by the actual international community. For some years, the US has sought in every way to block such eventualities. The inspections were used as a cover for spying on Iraq, with the open intent of overthrowing the regime and probably assassinating the leadership. Apart from the violation of elementary norms, these practices were sure to undermine the inspections regime, and to sharply reduce the likelihood that Iraq would accept inspections. Would Israel agree to inspection of its military facilities by spies for Hamas? In 1998, Clinton withdrew the inspectors in preparation for bombing — acts that have been reconstructed in propaganda as Iraqi expulsion of the inspectors. The US-UK bombing was carefully timed to coincide with an emergency meeting of the Security Council on inspections, hence to demonstrate the utter contempt of the enforcers for the UN. And the bombing was another blow to the renewal of inspections. Since then, Washington has been insisting that even if Iraq accepts the most intrusive inspections by American spies seeking to prepare the ground for invasion, it will not make any difference. In Cheney’s recent version, “A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddam's] compliance with U.N. resolutions.” This stance amounts to pleading with Iraq not to accept inspectors. It has been reported, not implausibly, that one reason why Washington forced out the highly respected director of the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Jose Bustani, was that he was seeking to arrange inspections of chemical weapons in Iraq, thus interfering with Washington’s efforts to prevent WMD inspections. The hypocrisy was particularly stunning, mainstream commentators pointed out, after the Bush administration undermined the Chemical and Biological weapons conventions by refusing at the last minute to ratify enforcement protocols, in part because of its opposition to arms agreements, in part to protect commercial secrets of US corporations, and possibly in part to keep its own violations of the conventions from too much exposure (though some has already leaked).

So back to the first question: is the goal to block inspections, or to expedite them? The witness, as quoted, evidently seeks to block them, and therefore need not be taken seriously. If, in contrast, the goal is to expedite inspections, then it’s necessary to address the US government as well as Iraq.

Just to summarize quickly, WMD programs make the world a more dangerous place, Saddam’s in particular. And the problem should be addressed in such a way as to make the world safer. The best approach would be global: treaties with meaningful provisions, and universal inspections to verify adherence to them. The next best approach would be something similar at a regional level. Both approaches would require US acquiescence, but that’s a remote contingency, at least right now. Sensible people should try to change that. The next best approach is to return inspectors to Iraq, alone. Every effort should be made to achieve that result — at least by those who hope to reduce serious threats, not just to find a pretext for war. The worst approach would be to try to prevent the return of inspectors along the lines just discussed. That continues to be US policy, in an effort to set the stage for an invasion. The planned invasion will strike another blow at the structure of international law and treaties that has been laboriously constructed over the years, in an effort to reduce the use of violence in the world, which has had such horrifying consequences. Apart from other consequences, an invasion is likely to encourage other countries to develop WMD, including a successor Iraqi government, and to lower the barriers against resort to force by others to achieve their objectives, including Russia, India, and China.

7. It is sometimes said that Saddam Hussein wouldn’t be crazy enough to launch a nuclear weapon at the U.S. or (more realistically) Israel, knowing the inevitable consequences. But wouldn’t a nuclear-armed Iraq be able to conventionally attack weaker neighboring states, knowing that his victims could not successfully call on the U.S. (or even the UN) for assistance, because Washington would fear a nuclear strike on Tel Aviv?

All sorts of outlandish possibilities can be imagined. That’s kept many people employed at Rand and other think-tanks ever since WMD became available. This is hardly one of the more credible examples. One reason is that the situation will almost certainly not arise. The scenario assumes that Saddam has provided credible evidence that he has WMD available and is capable of using them. Otherwise, such weapons are not a threat or a deterrent at all. But if there ever is any indication that he does have significant WMD capacity, he’ll be wiped out before he can threaten anyone with invasion. Suppose, however, just to play the game, we accept the absurd assumption that the US and Israel will just sit there quietly while Saddam brandishes WMD as a potential deterrent, in advance of the invasion of some.other country. Then the US and Israel would instantly respond to the invasion, expelling him (and probably destroying Iraq). His WMD would be no deterrent at all. A sufficient reason is that to allow his invasion to succeed would leave him as a far greater threat. Furthermore, it would be assumed that he would not use whatever WMD capacity he has because that would mean instant suicide, and if he was bent on suicide he would have used his WMD against Israel (or someone else) even before invading another country. The scenario has such slight plausibility that it is hardly worth considering in comparison with real problems that do not have to be conjured up by fevered imaginations.

If one wants to play such games, why not take some more plausible scenarios. Here’s one. Suppose that the US shifts policy and joins the international consensus on a two-state Israel-Palestine settlement. Suppose, for example, the US endorses the recent Saudi plan adopted by the Arab League. Suppose Israel reacts by threatening the US — not threatening to bomb it, but in other ways. For example, suppose Israel sends bombers over the Saudi oil fields (maybe nuclear armed, but that’s unnecessary), just to indicate what it can do to the world if the US doesn’t get on board again. It would be too late to react, because Israel could then carry out its warnings. That scenario has a certain plausibility because apparently it actually happened, 20 years ago, when the Saudi government floated a similar plan, violently opposed by Israel. According to the Israeli press, Israel reacted by sending bombers over the oil fields, as a warning to the US, but one that was unnecessary because the Reagan administration joined Israel in rejecting that possibility for a political settlement, as it has consistently done. True, Israel might have been facing destruction, but one might argue that Israel’s strategy allows that possibility. As far back as the 1950s, leaders of the then-ruling Labor Party advised that Israel should “go crazy” if the US wouldn’t go along with its demands, and the “Samson complex” has been an element of planning — how seriously, we don’t know — ever since. So we should bomb Israel right away, before it has a chance to carry out these evil plots.

Do I believe any of this? Of course not. It’s nonsensical. However, it doesn’t compare too badly with the scenario about Iraq.

It should be added that there are circumstances under which Saddam might use WMD, assuming he has the capacity. If Iraq is invaded with the clear intention of capturing or more likely killing him, he would have every incentive to go for broke, since he’d have nothing to lose. But it is hard to imagine other circumstances.

8. How will the Iraqi people react to a U.S. attack on Iraq? What are the likely humanitarian consequences of a U.S. war?

No one has a clue. Not Donald Rumsfeld, not me, no one. One can imagine a delightful scenario: a few bombs fall, the Republican Guards rebel and overthrow Saddam, crowds cheer as US soldiers march in while the band plays “God Bless America,” the people of the region hail the liberator who proceeds to turn Iraq into an image of American democracy and a modernizing center for the entire region — and one that produces just enough oil to keep the price within the range that the US prefers, breaking the OPEC stranglehold. And Santa Claus smiles benignly from his sleigh. One can easily imagine rather more grim outcomes. That’s a normal concomitant of the decision to resort to massive violence, and one of the many reasons why those who advocate that course have a very heavy burden of proof to bear. Needless to say, neither Rumsfeld nor Cheney nor any of the intellectuals urging war against Iraq have remotely begun to meet this burden.

9. What in your view are the true motives propelling a possible war?

There are longstanding background reasons, which are well known. Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world. It has always been likely that sooner or later, the US would try to restore this enormous prize to Western control, meaning now US control, denying privileged access to others. But those considerations have held for years. 9-11 offered new opportunities to pursue these goals under the pretext of a “war on terror” — thin pretexts, but probably sufficient for propaganda purposes. The planned war can serve immediate domestic needs as well. It’s hardly a secret that the Bush administration is carrying out an assault against the general population and future generations in the interest of narrow sectors of wealth and power that it serves with loyalty that exceeds even the usual norms. Under those circumstances, it is surely advisable to divert attention away from health care, social security, deficits, destruction of the environment, development of new weapons systems that may literally threaten survival, and a long list of other unwelcome topics. The traditional, and reasonable, device is to terrify the population. “The whole aim of practical politics,” the great American satirist H. L. Mencken once said, is “to keep the public alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” In fact the menaces invoked are rarely imaginary, though they are typically inflated beyond all reason. That’s a good part of the history of “practical politics,” not only here of course. It doesn’t take much skill to evoke an image of Saddam Hussein as the ultimate force of evil about to destroy the world, maybe the universe. And with the population huddling in fear as our gallant forces miraculously overcome this awesome foe, perhaps they won’t pay attention to what is being done to them, and may even join the chorus of distinguished intellectuals chanting praises for Our Leaders. The US preponderance of power is so extraordinary that there will be plenty in reserve if things seem to be going wrong. And if that happens down the road, it can all be shovelled deep into the memory hole, or blamed on someone else, or maybe on our naive faith that others are as benign as we are. It’s pretty easy: there’s a treasure trove of experience to draw from.

10. Some advocates of war have suggested that if the economic sanctions on Iraq are as horrible as the left claims, then a war, even a war that killed 100,000 civilians, would be a humanitarian blessing, since, presumably, after a U.S. victory there would be no more sanctions. How do you answer this argument?

I’ve heard some zany arguments in the past, but this must break some new records. I suspect it was offered tongue in cheek. Note first the conception of “the left”: the UN’s humanitarian coordinators (Denis Halliday, Hans van Sponeck) who know more about the country than anyone else, UNICEF, etc. It’s a bit like saying that the left is concerned about global warming — and tells us something about where those who question “the claim” place themselves on the political spectrum.

But that aside, the argument does have appeal. For example, we could offer Iran assistance in conquering Israel and carrying out appropriate “regime change,” so that suicide bombings would stop. Since the war advocates doubtless regard suicide bombing as atrocious, they should be calling for that. Or, we could help Russia grind Chechnya to dust, so that Chechens would no longer have to suffer Russian terror and atrocities. The possibilities are endless.

11. What will the implications of war be in the Mideast, and also other parts of the world? Do U.S. elites care?

Elites of course care, though the small group that holds the reins of power currently may not care very much. They evidently believe that they have such overwhelming force at their command that it doesn’t really matter much what others think: if they don’t go along, they’ll be dismissed, or if they are in the way, pulverized. The thinking in high places was made pretty clear when Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited the US in April to urge the administration to pay some attention to the reaction in the Arab world to its strong support for Israeli terror and repression. He was told, in effect, that the US did not care what he or other Arabs think. A high official explained that “if he thought we were strong in Desert Storm, we’re 10 times as strong today. This was to give him some idea what Afghanistan demonstrated about our capabilities.” A senior defense analyst gave a simple gloss: others will “respect us for our toughness and won’t mess with us.” That stand has precedents that need not be mentioned. But in the post-9/11 world it gains new force. Are they right? Could be. Or maybe the world will blow up in their face, perhaps after a “decent interval,” as it’s called in diplomacy. Again, resort to large-scale violence has highly unpredictable consequences, as history reveals and common sense should tell us anyway. That’s why sane people avoid it, in personal relations or international affairs, unless a very powerful argument is offered to overcome “the sickly inhibitions against the use of military force” (to borrow the phrase of Reaganite intellectual Norman Podhoretz, paraphrasing Goebbels).

12. Christopher Hitchens makes the point that while Saudi Arabia, Scowcroft, and Kissinger oppose war with Iraq because of its potential destabilizing effect in the region, the left should not care about the stability of the reactionary and corrupt regimes of the Middle East. Does this refute a commonly-heard objection to war?

It is hard to imagine what the point is supposed to be. The left has always been strenuously opposed to US support for “the reactionary and corrupt regimes of the Middle East,” and would of course welcome their “destabilization” in favor of something better. On the other hand, if “destabilization” brought to power something even worse — say, what Hitchens calls “Islamic fascism” — then the left would oppose it, and I presume he would too. So what is the point?

I don’t see how these considerations bear on any “objection to war,” commonly heard or not, at least from the left. What Scowcroft and Kissinger may have in mind is another matter.

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