What is at Stake in Iraq

The following is an excerpt from Noam Chomsky’s new book  INTERVENTIONS published by City Lights Books.


City Lights Books / Open Media Series

Foreword by Peter Hart | Editor’s note by Greg Ruggiero

234 pages | $15.95

ISBN – 13: 978-0-87286483-2

Pub date: July 2007





What is at Stake in Iraq


January 30, 2007




In the West, some of the most important information about Iraq remains either ignored or unspoken. Unless it is taken into account, proposals about U.S. policies in Iraq will be neither morally nor strategically sound.


For example, one of the least noticed recent news stories from the tortured land of Iraq was among the most illuminating: a poll in Baghdad, Anbar, and Najaf on the invasion and its consequences. “About 90 percent of Iraqis feel the situation in the country was better before the U.S.-led invasion than it is today,” United Press International reported on the survey, which was conducted in November 2006 by the Baghdad-based Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. “Nearly half of the respondents favored an immediate withdrawal of U.S.-led troops,” reported the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon. Another 20 percent favored a phased withdrawal starting right away. (A U.S. State Department poll, also ignored, found that two-thirds of Baghdadis want immediate withdrawal.)


Generally, however, public opinion—in Iraq, the United States or elsewhere—is not considered relevant to policy-makers, unless it may impede their preferred choices. These are just further indications of the deep contempt for democracy on the part of planners and their acolytes, standard accompaniments of a flood of lofty rhetoric about love of democracy and messianic missions to promote it.


U.S. polls show majority opposition to the war, but they receive limited attention and scarcely enter into policy planning, or even critique of planning. The most prominent recent critique was the report of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, widely acclaimed as a valuable critical corrective to the policies of the George W. Bush administration, which immediately dismissed the report to oblivion. One notable feature of the report is its lack of concern for the will of the Iraqi people. The report cites some of the polls of Iraqi sentiment, but only in regard to the safety of U.S. forces. The report’s implicit assumption is that policy should be designed for U.S. government interests, not those of Iraqis; or of Americans, also ignored.


The report makes no inquiry into those guiding interests, or why the United States invaded, or why it fears a sovereign and more or less democratic Iraq, though the answers are not hard to find. The real reason for the invasion, surely, is that Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world, very cheap to exploit, and is at the heart of the world’s major hydrocarbon resources. The issue is not access to those resources but control of them (and for the energy corporations, profit). As Vice President Dick Cheney observed last May (2006), control over energy resources provides “tools of intimidation or blackmail”—in the hands of others, that is.


Buried in the study is the expected recommendation to allow corporate (meaning mostly U.S.-U.K.) control over Iraq‘s energy resources. In the more delicate phrasing of the study, “The United States should assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise, in order to enhance efficiency, transparency, and accountability.”


Because of its systematic unwillingness to discuss such crass matters, the Study Group is unable to face the reality of U.S. policy choices in the face of the catastrophe that the invasion has created, already discussed.


The Baker-Hamilton report’s central focus is withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq: more specifically, their withdrawal from direct combat, though the proposals were hedged with many qualifications and evasions. The report has a few words urging the president to announce that the United States does not intend a permanent military presence in Iraq, but without a call to terminate construction of military bases, so such a declaration is not likely to be taken seriously by Iraqis.


The report appears to assume (by omission) that logistics, the backbone of a modern army, should remain under U.S. control, and that combat units must remain for “force protection”—including protection of U.S. combat forces embedded in Iraqi units—in a country where 60 percent of the population, and many more in Arab Iraq where forces are actually deployed, regard them as a legitimate target, the soldiers in their units for example.


There is also no discussion of the fact that the U.S. will, of course, retain total control of airspace and therefore might be tempted to resort to the tactics it used in the later stages of the Indochina wars as troops were being withdrawn, an ominous prospect discussed in a very important article by two leading Cambodia specialists, Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan (director of the Yale University Genocide project), “Bombs over Cambodia,” Walrus (Canada), October 2006. It was well known that reduction of ground forces from South Vietnam was accompanied by acceleration of the merciless bombing, particularly of northern Laos and Cambodia. But they provide startling new information about its scale and consequences. The new data reveal that the bombing of Cambodia was five times as great as the incredible level that had been reported earlier, meaning that the bombing of rural Cambodia exceeded the total bombing by allied forces throughout World War II. The new material substantially reinforces earlier estimates of the impact of the bombing. In the authors’ words, “Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion… the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.” Nixon’s orders for the bombing attack were transmitted by Henry Kissinger, with the words “Anything that flies, on anything that moves”—one of the most explicit calls for genocide in the archives of any state. Kissinger’s orders had been mentioned in the New York Times (Elizabeth Becker, “Kissinger Tapes Describe Crises, War and Stark Photos of Abuse,” May 27, 2004), eliciting no detectable reaction. Silence also greeted the horrendous new revelations. The null reactions provide additional evidence of the actual concern for Cambodians on the part of those in the West who were gleefully exploiting their plight for personal gain and in the service of power while the Khmer Rouge atrocities were underway, with no suggestion as to what to do about them—in sharp contrast to their reaction to comparable massacres for which we had primary responsibility and could therefore terminate, if we chose.1


One can hardly dismiss lightly the Owen-Kiernan concerns about what might unfold in Iraq, in the light of such recent precedents as these.


Some observers fear that a U.S. pullout from Iraq would lead to a full-fledged civil war and the country’s deterioration. As for the consequences of a withdrawal, we are entitled to our personal judgments, all of them as uninformed and dubious as those of U.S. intelligence. But these judgments do not matter. What matters is what Iraqis think. Or rather, that is what should matter.


If the consistent results of many polls are considered insufficient, the question of withdrawal could even be submitted to a referendum, conducted under international supervision to minimize coercion by the occupying forces and their Iraqi clients.


Now, contrary to the Baker-Hamilton report (and to Iraqi and U.S. public opinion), the Washington plan is to “surge”—to introduce more troops into Iraq. Few military analysts or Middle East specialists expect such tactics to succeed, but that is plainly not the primary issue, unless we agree that the only question that can be raised is whether U.S. aggression can succeed in its goals. No one should underestimate the force of the long-standing goal of U.S. foreign policy to sustain its control over this region’s crucial resources. Authentic Iraqi sovereignty will not easily be tolerated by the occupying power, nor can it or neighboring states tolerate Iraq‘s deterioration, or a potential regional war in the aftermath.






1.For a review of this sordid episode of intellectual history, and many others like it, see Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (1988, updated 2002) and sources cited, particularly our Political Economy of Human Rights, two volumes (1979).


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