On Iraq

Noam Chomsky interviewed by various interviewers

The Public Broadcasting System’s Online Newshour Forum, March 12, 1998

QUESTION #1: Could you comment on whether or not you believe the U.S. has a moral obligation, because of its capabilities, to intervene in international affairs?

CHOMSKY: We should, I think, bear in mind that moral concepts apply at root to people. States do have legal obligations, but they are not moral agents, though their citizens can influence them to act in morally responsible and legally admissible ways, or can allow them to act quite differently.

Individuals are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of what they do, hence for the course of international affairs to the extent that they can influence events by action, or inaction. We happen to be citizens of by far the most powerful state in the world. Our action/inaction can therefore have unusual influence; and unlike many others, we are privileged to be able to act without undue fear of repression. Accordingly, our moral responsibilities — sometimes obligations — reach far beyond those of others, in general.

Just what these responsibilities are, and whether they extend to the very serious matter of intervention, has to be determined case by case. There are no formulas; each case has to be examined on its merits, with careful inquiry into the actual facts (which may not be easy to determine), the options available, the requirements of international law, and the likely consequences of action or inaction.

The simplest cases are those that fall under a traditional medical doctrine: First, do no harm. These include crucial examples of recent and current history. Consider two. One of the world’s worst violators of human rights is Indonesian dictator General Suharto, who came to power with an army-led massacre that the CIA described as “one of the worst mass murders in the twentieth century,” ranking it alongside the crimes of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. These crimes were carried out with US support, which has not wavered as Suharto compiled a shocking record of terror against his own population and invaded a small oil-rich country (East Timor), killing some 200,000 people and robbing its resources. The invasion was in direct violation of a UN Security Council resolution to withdraw at once. These crimes too have been carried out with the decisive military and diplomatic support of the United States. Accordingly, it was — and is — our moral responsibility as citizens to terminate these crimes. That would require no “intervention,” only withdrawal of support, a far simpler matter.

During these years, Saddam Hussein has also carried out major crimes. The worst by far were committed in the 1980s, including his gassing of Kurds at Halabja in 1988, chemical warfare against Iran, torture of dissidents, and numerous others. His invasion of Kuwait, though a serious crime, in fact added little to his already horrendous record. Throughout the period of his worst crimes, Saddam remained a favored ally and trading partner of the US and Britain, which furthermore abetted these crimes.

The Reagan Administration even sought to prevent congressional reaction to the the gassing of the Kurds, including the (failed) plea of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell that “we cannot be silent to genocide again” as the world was when Hitler exterminated Europe’s Jews. So extreme was Reaganite support for their friend that when ABC TV correspondent Charles Glass revealed the site of one of Saddam’s biological warfare programs a few months after Halabja, Washington denied the facts, and the story died; the State Department “now issues briefings on the same site,” Glass writes (in England).

There were no passionate calls for a military strike against this brutal killer and torturer. Quite the contrary: much of what was known, including US support, was downplayed or not reported. After the Gulf War, the Senate Banking Committee found that the Commerce Department had traced shipment of “biological materials” of a kind later found and destroyed by UN inspectors, continuing at least until November 1989. A month later, during his invasion of Panama, Bush authorized new loans for Saddam: to achieve the “goal of increasing U.S. exports and put us in a better position to deal with Iraq regarding its human rights record…,” the State Department announced, facing no criticism in the mainstream (in fact, no report). The Bush Administration continued to support the mass murderer up to his invasion of Kuwait, which shifted his status from ally to enemy, much as the Suharto coup and slaughters of 1965 shifted Indonesia from enemy to friend. In these and many other cases, the criterion that distinguishes friend from enemy is obedience, not crime.

Immediately after the Gulf war ended in March 1991, Washington returned to support for Saddam. The State Department formally reiterated its refusal to have any dealings with the Iraqi democratic opposition: “Political meetings with them would not be appropriate for our policy at this time,” the Department spokesman declared. “This time” was March 14 1991, while Saddam was decimating the southern opposition under the eyes of US forces, which refused even to grant rebelling Iraqi military officers access to captured Iraqi arms, to defend the population and perhaps overthrow the monster. Had it not been for unexpected public reaction, Washington might not have extended even weak support to rebelling Kurds, subjected to the same treatment shortly after.

The official reason for protecting Saddam was the need to preserve “stability.” Administration reasoning was outlined by New York Times chief diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman. While opposing a popular rebellion, he wrote, Washington did hope that a military coup might remove Saddam, “and then Washington would have the best of all worlds: an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein,” 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. Iraqi democrats did not regard this as “the best of all worlds.” A leading figure of the opposition, Ahmed Chalabi, described the outcome as “the worst of all possible worlds” for the Iraqi people, whose tragedy is “awesome.” The US, he said, was “waiting for Saddam to butcher the insurgents in the hope that he can be overthrown later by a suitable officer,” an attitude rooted in the US policy of “supporting dictatorships to maintain stability.”

Washington claims to have supported the democratic opposition in later years. Their own picture is different, however. Just last month, the British press reported Chalabi’s observation that “everyone says Saddam is boxed in, but it is the Americans and British who are boxed in by their refusal to support the idea of political change.”

It was our responsibility, indeed obligation, to compel Washington to end its support for Saddam’s worst crimes when they occurred, perhaps even to intervene to terminate them had that been necessary. Quite possibly, as in the case of Suharto, withdrawal of support would have sufficed. Currently the Iraqi Democratic opposition is advancing concrete proposals for overthrowing Saddam in favor of a popular-based alternative. They are requesting US support but not military intervention, which they have consistently opposed. How realistic these proposals are it is hard to judge, but we have a responsibility, I think, to ensure that they receive serious and honest attention, and to ensure further that Washington abandon the “refusal to support the idea of political change,” apparently still in force. Again, there are no simple general formulas. Slogans are easy, sometimes policy choices too, particularly when we are carrying out or abetting crimes and can desist. But choices are often hard and complex, with unpredictable and possibly extreme consequences. There is no alternative to the careful evaluation of each case, on its merits.

QUESTION #2: Considering U.S. interventions during the Cold War, i.e. Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, etc., is America’s willingness to use force against Iraq just a continuation of previous policies? Or does it illustrate a fundamental shift in how the U.S. intervenes, from a covert model to more overt action?

CHOMSKY: The US has often resorted to overt action in past years. To mention only one example, in 1961-1962 the Kennedy Administration moved from support for large-scale state terror in South Vietnam, which had already killed tens of thousands of people, to a direct attack, including US Air Force bombing, napalm, crop destruction, and numerous other crimes. These assaults — aggression by any reasonable standards — laid the basis for further escalation from 1965, by then extended to the rest of Indochina. Millions were killed in the ruined countries. Unknown numbers more have suffered and died from the effects of chemical warfare and from unexploded ordnance, and still do. Those were not covert actions.

There have been many other cases. George Bush’s invasion of Panama — condemned by two UN Security Council resolutions that Washington vetoed — was overt.It is also worth recalling that when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait a few months later, the prime concern of the Bush Administration was that he would emulate what the US had just done in Panama. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell posed the problem sharply: “The next few days Iraq will withdraw,” putting “his puppet in” and “Everyone in the Arab world will be happy.”

If so, the outcome would have been much like the recent US invasion of Panama, though Latin America was far from happy; it was in an uproar, bitterly opposed to the US actions, particularly the Group of Eight Latin American democracies, which expelled Panama (already suspended) because it was under the rule of a puppet regime maintained by foreign force.

Overt actions are nothing new. In fact, because of internal changes in the US, Washington may be less likely to resort to overt action than in the past. The Reagan Administration sought to emulate in Central America what Kennedy had done in South Vietnam, but quickly retreated in the face of unanticipated popular reaction; it turned to clandestine and state terror throughout the region, rather than direct US assault, and was indeed condemned by the World Court for the “unlawful use of force” and ordered to desist, a judgment dismissed here with contempt; its crucial wording was not even reported in the mainstream press, nor was there any concern when the US vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on all states to observe international law, mentioning no one, though all understood what was intended. A leaked National Security Policy Review in the first months of the Bush presidency concluded that “In cases where the U.S. confronts much weaker enemies, our challenge will be not simply to defeat them, but to defeat them decisively and rapidly”; delay might “undercut political support,” understood to be thin. That is part of the reason why US doctrine shifted to “Low Intensity Conflict” or quick demolition of a “much weaker enemy.”

US military doctrine is unusual in that US casualties are not tolerated and overwhelming force must be available. That is why the US has so rarely taken part in difficult peacekeeping operations, which involve interactions with civilians that require restraint and carry risks; these are left to Canada, Ireland, Norway, Fiji, and others. In Somalia, for example, US forces were sent only after the worst fighting had declined, and recovery from famine was underway. The intervention turned into a disaster because US forces resorted to massive force, following Pentagon doctrine, as soon as problems arose. The US command estimated 6-10,000 Somali casualties in the summer of 1993 alone, two-thirds women and children. What happened was later attributed to UN incompetence, but that is an evasion.

The patterns of US intervention depend ultimately on decisions by American citizens, including the decision to stay quiet or even not to know. In principle such actions are under popular control; in fact too, if we so choose.

QUESTION #3: What do you think about the hearings being held in the U.S. Congress on assassinating Saddam? Do you think the U.S. government, including Congress, is overstepping its limits?

CHOMSKY: Assassination of Saddam is, in my opinion, a minor issue. Even attempts to assassinate Castro, criminal no doubt, are marginal in the context of the terror attacks against Cuba from 1959.

There is, however, no doubt that “the U.S. government, including Congress, is overstepping its limits” in the matter of Iraq. Those limits are clear and explicit. They are embodied in the Charter of the United Nations, a “solemn treaty” recognized as the foundation of international law and world order, and also “the supreme law of the land” under the Constitution. The Charter declares unambiguously that the UN Security Council alone “shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken….” The one exception is the right of self-defense against “armed attack” until the Security Council acts (Article 51). The fundamental principle is that member states “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force.” These are the “limits” that bind law-abiding states.

Outlaw states reject these conditions: Suharto’s Indonesia and Saddam’s Iraq, for example. Washington too rejects them. Its position was forthrightly articulated by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan undertook his February 1998 diplomatic mission: “We wish him well,” she stated, “and when he comes back we will see what he has brought and how it fits with our national interest,” which will determine how we respond. When the Security Council endorsed Annan’s agreement, President Clinton announced that if Iraq fails the test of conformity (as determined by Washington), “everyone would understand that then the United States and hopefully all of our allies would have the unilateral right to respond at a time, place and manner of our own choosing.” UN Ambassador Bill Richardson added that the US retains the right of “unilateral use of force.” Other officials too stated clearly and unambiguously that the US will resort to the threat or use of force as it chooses, whatever the UN Security Council decides; and in this case, in the face of opposition in the region so extreme that only Kuwait was willing to give even tepid support for the planned military strikes, while other client states condemned US threats as “bad and loathsome” and reacted by moves to improve relations with Iran (United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia).

The reaction here to Washington’s stand was instructive. At one extreme, doves praised the Administration for its violation of international and domestic law; at the other, hawks denounced it for weak gestures towards our explicit legal obligations. Congressional leaders warned that the US was “subcontracting” its foreign policy to the UN Security Council and “subordinating its power to the United Nations,” obligations for all law-abiding states. No less remarkable was the fact that the fundamental issues of adherence to “the supreme law of the land” were off the agenda for the media and commentators. In the US, that is; elsewhere they were discussed. Accordingly, though many words flowed, we can hardly say that in this country there was a meaningful “debate” over the current Iraq crisis.

Returning to the matter of assassination, we should not forget that far more serious crimes are being committed daily against the Iraqi people. The harsh sanctions policy pursued under US pressure “enhances the leadership” and “diminishes the people,” a UN administrator observed, reflecting the common view of diplomats and aid officials in Iraq, and many analysts elsewhere. The sanctions are a major factor in the rapid increase in disease, malnutrition, and early death, including 567,000 children by 1995. UNICEF reports 4500 children dying a month in 1996. In a bitter condemnation of the sanctions in January 1998, 54 Catholic Bishops quoted the Archbishop of the southern region of Iraq, who reports that “epidemics rage, taking away infants and the sick by the thousands” while “those children who survive disease succumb to malnutrition.” The UN Food and Agriculture Administration warns further that the epidemics may lead to “biological disaster” in the region, noting the spread of screw worm infection, raging in Iraq and now detected in Kuwait. Senior UN and other international relief officials in Iraq warned that the planned bombing could have a “catastrophic” effect on people already suffering miserably. The head of CARE (Australia) warned that a military strike “will produce a massive humanitarian disaster.” There is no evidence, to my knowledge, that such factors were a factor in US planning.

By comparison, assassination of Saddam would be at worst a very minor crime.

QUESTION #4: Do you believe that the U.S. public has an adequate opportunity to form rational opinions about U.S. policy given the quality of media coverage?

CHOMSKY: No, I do not. As noted, the central and most important issue was simply excluded: namely, the question of Washington’s authority to violate international law and its own laws by the unilateral threat and use of force.

There were many distortions, though none as striking as this omission, in my view. One example was strikingly illustrated at the televised “Town meeting” on February 18. Defending US plans to attack Iraq, Secretaries Albright and Cohen repeatedly invoked Saddam’s ultimate atrocity: he was guilty of “using weapons of mass destruction against his neighbors as well as his own people,” his most awesome crime. “It is very important for us to make clear that the United States and the civilized world cannot deal with somebody who is willing to use those weapons of mass destruction on his own people, not to speak of his neighbors,” Albright emphasized in an angry response to a questioner who asked about US support for Suharto. Putting aside the evasion of the question raised, Albright and Cohen only forgot to mention that Washington supported and continued to abet the crimes that are now belatedly condemned. Reporters and commentators refrained from mentioning these not insignificant facts, let alone stressing that it was not Saddam’s crimes that turned him into the new Hitler; rather his disobedience.

There are many other examples. Thus, the New York Times reported that “Israel is not demonstrably in violation of Security Council decrees.” That is clearly false. Israel has violated dozens of Security Council resolutions, and there would be many more examples if the US did not routinely veto them. Of particular relevance here is Resolution 425 of March 1978, which orders Israel to withdraw forthwith and unconditionally from Lebanon. It remains in Lebanon with US support. Its most recent proposals continue to violate the Security Council Resolution.

Indonesia’s extraordinary crimes and the strong US support for them have also been largely suppressed or distorted, and still are, often in scandalous ways.

It is easy to go on with a long list. To return to question (1), while the US public has a moral responsibility to monitor its government’s actions, quite often only those who undertake or have access to independent research are in a position to act in a sensible and informed manner, a serious departure from functioning democracy.

QUESTION #5: What does the recent crisis, namely the US’ insistence that it reserves the “right” to use force against Iraq, tell us about the direction US foreign policy is headed in the post-Cold War world? Doesn’t this set a dangerous precedent, if not for US policy, but for the future of the international system?

CHOMSKY: My only reservations have to do with the phrases “post-Cold War world” and “precedent.” The US has always insisted on its right to use force, whatever international law requires, and whatever international institutions decide: the United Nations, the World Court, the Organization of American States, or others. While the World Court was reaching its (expected) judgment in April 1986, Secretary of State George Shultz declared that “Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table,” condemning those who advocate “utopian, legalistic means like outside mediation, the United Nations, and the World Court, while ignoring the power element of the equation.” Saddam would surely agree, along with many others in modern history.

Such rejection of the rule of law has often been dramatically explicit. Thus, immediately after the 1954 Geneva Accords on a peaceful settlement for Indochina, which Washington refused to accept, the National Security Council secretly decreed that even in the case of “local Communist subversion or rebellion NOT CONSTITUTING ARMED ATTACK” (my emphasis) the US would consider the use of military force, including an attack on China if it is “determined to be the source” of the “subversion”; the NSC also called for converting Thailand into “the focal point of U.S. covert and psychological operations in Southeast Asia,” undertaking “covert operations on a large and effective scale” throughout Indochina, and in general, acting forcefully to undermine the Accords and the UN Charter. The wording, repeated verbatim annually in planning documents, was chosen so as to make explicit the US right to violate Article 51 of the Charter, which permits the use of force only in immediate self-defense against “armed attack.”

The US proceeded to define “aggression” to include “political warfare, or subversion,” what UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson called “internal aggression” while defending JFK’s escalation in South Vietnam. US attacks were therefore transmuted into “self-defense” against “internal aggression.” When the US bombed Libyan cities in 1986, the official justification was “self defense against future attack,” a ludicrous distortion of the Charter applauded by legal specialists in the national press. The US invasion of Panama was defended in the Security Council by appeal to Article 51, which, US Ambassador Pickering declared, “provides for the use of armed force to defend a country, to defend our interests and our people,” and permits the U.S. to invade Panama to prevent its “territory from being used as a base for smuggling drugs into the United States” — an astonishing concept of “armed attack,” which passed without criticism. In June 1993, when Clinton launched a missile attack on Baghdad, killing civilians, UN Ambassador Albright appealed to Article 51, explaining that the bombing was in “self-defense against armed attack” — namely, an alleged attempt to assassinate former president Bush two months earlier. The claim would have been remarkable even if the US had had credible evidence of Iraqi involvement, which, officials conceded, they did not.

These and innumerable other examples illustrate far-reaching contempt for the rule of law. The US has always relied on the rule of force in international affairs. International law, treaties, the World Court, War Crimes Tribunals, moral judgment, etc., are regularly invoked against enemies, often quite accurately. But the precedent to which Mr. Whitman refers has long been established.

The US, of course, is not alone in these practices. Other states commonly act in much the same way, if not constrained by external or internal forces. Hence the enormous moral responsibility of citizens, particularly in more powerful and free societies. We may decide to disregard the historical and documentary record, but it seems to me hardly wise or honorable to succumb to illusions about it.