The Situation in Iraq

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Giampaolo Cadalanu

La Repubblica, February, 1998

1) The intervention of the U.S. in Irak seems at the momentunavoidable. Do you think the real reason of this intervention is to impose respect of U.N. resolutions?

To evaluate the proposal, we can ask how the US itself respects UN resolutions. There are simple ways to check. For the past 30 years, the US is far in the lead in vetoing Security Council Resolutions (Britain second, France a distant third). In the General Assembly, the US regularly votes against resolutions in virtual isolation — hence in effect vetoing them — on a wide range of issues. The pattern extends to the World Court, international conventions on human rights, and much else. Furthermore the US freely disregards violation of UN resolutions that it has formally endorsed, and often contributes materially to such violation. The case of Israel is notorious (for example, the 1978 Security Council resolution calling on Israel to withdraw immediately from Lebanon). To select another example that is quite relevant here, in December 1975 the Security Council unanimously ordered Indonesia to withdraw its invading forces from East Timor “without delay” and called upon “all States to respect the territorial integrity of East Timor as well as the inalienable right of its people to self-determination.” The US responded by (secretly) increasing its shipments of arms to the aggressors, accelerating the arms flow once again as the attack reached near-genocidal levels in 1978. In his memoirs, UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan takes pride in his success in rendering the UN “utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook,” following the instructions of the State Department, which “wished things to turn out as they did and worked to bring this about.” The US also cheerfully accepts the robbery of East Timor’s oil (with participation of US-based companies), in violation of any reasonable interpretation of international agreements. The analogy to Iraq/Kuwait is close, though there are differences: to mention only the most obvious, US-backed atrocities in East Timor were vastly beyond anything attributed to Saddam Hussein in Kuwait. It is easy to extend the record. Like other great powers, the US is committed to the rule of force, not law, in international affairs. UN Resolutions, World Court Judgments, International Conventions, etc., are acceptable if they accord with policy; otherwise they are mere words.

2) Which difference do you see between this intervention and Operation “Desert Storm”, with the Bush administration?

There are many differences. “Desert Storm” was allegedly intended to drive Iraq from Kuwait; today the alleged goal is to compel Iraq to permit UN inspection of Saddam’s weapons programs. In both cases, a closer look reveals a more complex story. After Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US feared that in “the next few days Iraq will withdraw” leaving in place a puppet government and “everyone in the Arab world will be happy” (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell). The concern, in brief, was that Iraq would act much as the US had done a few months earlier when it invaded Panama (vetoing two Security Council resolutions condemning its actions). What followed also does not quite conform to standard versions. Today, it is widely expected that a military strike will leave Iraq’s murderous tyrant in power, continuing to pursue his weapons programs, while undermining such international inspection as exists. It may also be recalled that Saddam’s worst crimes were committed when he was a favored US ally and trading partner, and that immediately after he was driven from Kuwait, the US watched quietly while he turned to the slaughter of rebelling Iraqis, even refusing to allow them access to captured Iraqi arms. Official stories rarely yield an accurate picture of what is happening. Nonetheless, the differences between 1990 and today are substantial.

3) Do you believe that the so-called “Sexgate”, the scandal about sexual behaviour of president Clinton, had a role in the decision to attack Iraq?

I doubt that it is much of a factor.

4) Do you see an alternative to the “new world order” of the U.S.?

“World order,” like “domestic order,” is based on decisions made within institutions that reflect existing power structures. The decisions can be changed; the institutions can be modified or replaced. It is natural that those who benefit from the organization of state and private power will portray it as inevitable, so that the victims will feel helpless to act. There is no reason to believe that. Particularly in the rich countries that dominate world affairs, citizens can easily act to create alternatives even within existing formal arrangements, and these are not graven in stone, any more than in the past.

5) Do you see in Irak an alternative to Saddam Hussein?

The rebelling forces in March 1991 were an alternative, but the US preferred Saddam. There was an Iraqi democratic opposition in exile. Washington refused to have anything to do with them before, during, or after the Gulf War, and they were virtually excluded from the US media, apart from marginal dissident journals. “Political meetings with them would not be appropriate for our policy at this time,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated on March 14, 1991, while Saddam was decimating the opposition under the eyes of Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf. They still exist. How realistic their programs are, I cannot judge, and I do not think we can know as long as the US remains committed — as apparently it still is — to the Bush adminstration policy that preferred “an iron-fisted Iraqi junta,” without Saddam Hussein if possible, a return to the days when Saddam’s “iron fist…held Iraq together, much to the satisfaction of the American allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” not to speak of Washington (NY Times chief diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman, July 1991).

6) What would happen if Baghdad suddenly decides to obey the U.N. resolution?

I am afraid that the probability is slight, and if he did, he would soon find new ways of evading the resolutions.

7) Why did embargo not work against Saddam’s regime?

The effects of the sanctions come as no surprise. They have strengthened Saddam’s position and undermined potential resistance to him among people struggling to survive. New bombing is likely to have a similar effect.

8) This time, do you believe it will be again “Exxon’s war”?

I do not think it was “Exxon’s war” in 1991, or today, at least in a narrow sense. It is quite true that since World War II, the US has been firmly committed to maintaining control over Middle East oil, which the State Department described as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” But there is no persuasive evidence that in 1990-91, the US was concerned about an Iraqi threat to this control. There is, however, good reason to believe that Washington saw the Iraqi invasion as an opportunity to extend its control — to demonstrate that “what we say goes,” as George Bush announced triumphantly while the missiles and bombs were falling. In fact, the US used the opportunity to institute at once the rejectionist version of the Israel-Arab “peace process” that it had maintained in virtual international isolation for 25 years, but was now able to implement. Previously, the US had been compelled to veto Security Council resolutions calling for a diplomatic settlement, to vote regularly against similar General Assembly resolutions (the last in December 1990, passed 144-2, the US and Israel opposed), and to undermine other diplomatic initiatives from Europe, the Arab world, and others. But after the Gulf War, the US was finally able to proceed, unopposed. The background issue remains control of the world’s major energy reserves, but apart from that, the specific problems of US energy corporations have not directly motivated the policies we are discussing.

9) Which role did the military play in the decision to attack? And industry?

Very little, I think.

10) This time, is it possible to link Gaza and the West Bank with respect of U.N. resolutions?

Highly unlikely, as things now stand. The US government could always have linked the issues, but has preferred not to. Its goal for the Israeli-occupied territories is the Bantustan-style settlement that is now being imposed (Israel’s two political groupings are not very different in this regard). US attitudes towards UN resolutions on these issues can readily be determined by reviewing the record of US vetoes, isolated negative votes, and disregard of continuing violations.

11) What can (or: could) be done to avoid (or: to stop) the war?

The usual answer: substantial popular pressure, in this case, from within the US and in Europe, primarily. Right now, that does not seem likely.