The Gulf Crisis

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Robert MacNeil

Public Broadcasting System, September 11, 1990

QUESTION: Next tonight, another in our series of special conversations on the Persian Gulf crisis. Noam Chomsky is institute professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s written numerous books and articles over the past 20 years on U.S. foreign policy, particularly on the Middle East. Professor Chomsky just completed a book on the post cold war system entitled “Deterring Democracy“. He joins us from public station WGBH in Boston. Professor Chomsky, thank you for joining us.

CHOMSKY: I’m glad to be here.

QUESTION: Listening to the Iraqi deputy prime minister, how do you think Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait is going to be resolved?

CHOMSKY: Well, it should definitely be resolved with the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait at the very least. And there are three ways in which that could happen. It could be done through the effects of the embargo and other economic measures. A second possibility would be to do it through war, and a third possibility would be to do it through negotiations. Now the second possibility, war, could be absolutely catastrophic in unpredictable ways. There is a general consensus in the world I think, there’s little doubt of that, there’s a hope that the first method, the embargo and related measures, will succeed. The problem arises and, in fact, divisions then begin to surface when we ask about the possibility, in fact, unfortunately likelihood that the embargo will not succeed in removing Iraq from Kuwait. Then the choices become clear, and in fact, they’re already clear, diplomacy or war. On that issue there is a good deal of division. That issue surfaced at the Helsinki summit. In fact, on that issue as I read the international situation, the United States is relatively isolated in preferring the warlike option.

QUESTION: First of all, go back to the embargo for a moment, you sound very pessimistic about the embargo achieving what President Bush and the United Nations hopes it will achieve.

CHOMSKY: I think that’s hard to predict. It’s by no means a certainty that it’s going to work. It’s quite possible that over a couple of months the embargo will start to leak and there will be various evasions and so on. I hope it will work, but I think one can have very little confidence in that.

QUESTION: Are you impressed with this incident in the sort of post cold war order as an example of the world uniting against an aggressor, which is what the UN Charter hoped would happen, does that impress you?

CHOMSKY: There is unity against an aggressor, but I think it has virtually nothing to do with the so called “post war era”. There have been many aggressions in that region and elsewhere over the years. There has been unfortunately no, rarely has there been unity in opposing them, and I should say that if you look at the record, you’ll find that the United States has very often supported those aggressions and interfered with UN efforts to stop them and has helped maintain them.

QUESTION: But this is being called the first crisis of the post cold war era.

CHOMSKY: Maybe. It’s possible that it’s being called that, but that’s not accurate. The invasion of Panama certainly qualifies as the first military action of the so-called “post cold war era”.

QUESTION: And how does that equate with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in your view?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think it equates with it exactly, but it was, the invasion of Panama was rather striking in that it was the first example of U.S. aggression or subversion in which there was no appeal made, there was no pretext that we were acting to defend ourselves against the Russians or their agents, and the reason was that at that point — this pretext had never been credible — but at this point it was beyond the imagination of anyone to invent it. In that respect, it was, we might call it, a post cold war invasion. Beyond that, there are similarities I should say. If — this was an act of direct aggression, and it was condemned by the United Nations, the United States had to vote against both Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, the United States established a puppet regime which is dominated by U.S. so called “advisers” down to details. It reinstituted the leadership group of its choice. There are plainly similarities to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. If it had not been for the firm international response to the Iraqi invasion, it’s quite possible that they would have left in a puppet regime to serve their purposes, which would have made the invasion in no sense more justifiable. As in the case of any two historical events, there are also many differences, but at the level of principle and of law, the only relevant difference is that in one case we did it, so it’s regarded as benign, and in the other case, they did it so it’s regarded as nefarious.

QUESTION: What do you think of Mr. Bush’s response to the Iraqi invasion going back nearly six weeks now?

CHOMSKY: I think that the organization of economic pressures and measures such as the embargo is definitely legitimate, in my view. I think we should, although we have never adhered to, we have rarely adhered to this in the past, we and the world should adhere to the principle that acquisition of territory by force or the use of force in international affairs is illegitimate and, in fact, unlawful. So that reaction was legitimate. As for the sending of troops, I think you could make a case for it. I think there was reason to believe that Iraq might have been planning to move on to further aggression. Beyond that point, I think serious questions arise, and it’s precisely beyond that point that the U.S. position tends to be quite isolated in the world. The question beyond that point is do we prepare for an eventuality in which we will be driven to or will choose to use military force, or do we explore diplomatic options, a diplomat track, do we move towards multilateralization of the effort and so on and so forth, those are the crucial questions, and those are the ones on which, over that there was a division at the Helsinki Summit. And I think it’s generally the case that most of the world supports Gorbachev’s position on that.

QUESTION: Just before we go on with that, some conservatives, one faction of conservatives, and we’ve had at least one of them on this program, argue that — and they’ve been labeled neo- isolationists for arguing it — that there was no vital U.S. interest at stake and that the United States should not be playing world policeman and shouldn’t have sent troops in this case. What do you feel about that?

CHOMSKY: I think it is correct that the United States should not be playing world policeman and of course, the United States, like any other power, acts not on principle but in its interest. In this particular case the interests happened to accord with a valid principle. It would have made much more sense for there to be and much more proper for there to be an international response organized and run by the United Nations. Whether that could have been done, one can raise questions about. I think it could certainly be done now. As for the vital interest of the United States, one could debate it, but the fact of the matter is that it’s been a leading, driving doctrine of U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s that the vast and unparalleled energy resources of the Gulf region will be effectively dominated by the United States and its clients, and crucially that no independent, indigenous force will be permitted to have a substantial influence on the administration of oil production and price. That’s been a leading principle of U.S. policy since the 1940s, and I think it remains so as we speak.

QUESTION: And a valid, valid principle in your view?

CHOMSKY: That principle is not a valid principle in my view. I don’t see that there’s any justification — there’s no justification for Iraq controlling the administration of oil production and the price and there’s no justification in our controlling.

QUESTION: Some have argued again on this program that if Saddam Hussein doesn’t get out of Iraq that there would be justification for the U.S. using force to get him out or further justification for the U.S. using force to destroy his military potential. How do you feel about those arguments?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think that there’s any justification for the U.S. to do it. I think there would be justification for an international effort to do it in this and numerous other cases in that region and elsewhere where territory has been acquired by force, where territories have been annexed, where there has been unlawful use of force in world affairs. Sure, it’s legitimate to enforce the principles of the UN Charter. I think they’re good principles. We don’t uphold them. In fact, we’ve repeatedly violated them. In this particular instance, as in every instance, they should be upheld, and in fact, by the methods that are outlined in the charter, by operations conducted by the Security Council, however, I do think that it’s kind of a diversion to raise that issue because the real question, again in my view, is whether must we move directly to the eventuality of war, are there possibilities for diplomacy?

QUESTION: How do you answer that latter question? What avenue do you see and through what issues that might lead to a diplomatic or negotiated settlement?

CHOMSKY: Well, there have been several offers floated through August, several by Iraq, some by others. The United States has rejected them forthwith without any consideration, but some of them I think do offer the possibility, could be explored. So for example, on August 12th, Iraq proposed withdrawal from Kuwait, its withdrawal from Kuwait in conjunction with the withdrawal of military forces from all occupied Arab territory. That meant Syria in Lebanon, Israel in Southern Lebanon, and the occupied territories. That was rejected instantaneously without any consideration. Although I should say in England, for example, the Financial Times, a conservative business newspaper, while saying that the offer was unacceptable, nevertheless, did say that it provides a path that should be followed away from disaster through negotiations. Again on August 23rd, Iraq made a proposal, an Iraqi proposal was transmitted to the White House which looked very forthcoming, at least what we know about it, very little. It proposed a complete withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, a freeing of the hostages, a termination of sanctions, no pre- condition that the United States should withdraw troops from the region or any other pre-condition. The only concession to Iraq listed there was that the Rumailah Oil Field which dips slightly into Kuwaiti territory, it’s mainly Iraqi, in a rather contested border region, that that should be handed over to Iraq. Well, once again, that’s, I wouldn’t say fine, let’s accept it, it’s over, but that does seem to, in fact, the White House specialist on MidEast affairs was quoted as saying that this offer is negotiable and serious, and I think that that’s correct, that’s what looked like a serious offer. And there have been some others. There’s very little reporting about this so it’s hard to be certain, but according to the Israeli press there is an offer that originated apparently with the PLO. The text of it was quoted by Fascell Hussein.

QUESTION: We just have half a minute left. Can I ask you, do you think if this is to be resolved without recourse to military means that one or other of those avenues will in the end have to be followed, something like that, a compromise to use President Bush’s words would have to be accepted, do you think?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think it would be much of a compromise. There are debatable issues there such as, for example, the exploitation of the Rumailah Field, but I think that there are negotiating paths that could be pursued. The same is true of the more far reaching question of the destruction of Iraq’s chemical and unconventional weapons capacity. Again, there has been an offer on the table which we rejected, an Iraqi offer last April, to eliminate their chemical and other unconventional arsenals if Israel were to simultaneously do the same…

QUESTION: Have to end it there.

CHOMSKY: We rejected it, but I think that should be pursued as well.

QUESTION: Sorry to interrupt you. I have to end it there. That’s the end of our time. Prof. Chomsky, thank you very much for joining us.