Stop U.S. Intervention

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Michael Lerner

Tikkun, April 5, 1999

The following piece includes statements made by Noam Chomsky as part of an essay he wrote on the Z Magazine website on March 27, 1999, and representative statements he made in an interview with Michael Lerner on April 5, 1999.

Tikkun: Many Jews believe that the intervention by the United States in Kosovo is a humanitarian act which deserves our support.

Chomsky: Then they are deluding themselves.

The right of humanitarian intervention, if it exists as a category in international law, is premised on the “good faith” of those intervening. That assumption of good faith is based not on their rhetoric but on their record, in particular their record of adherence to the principles of international law, World Court decisions, and so on. But if we look at the historical record, the United States does not qualify.

To be sure, there has been a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo in the past year, overwhelmingly attributable to Yugoslav military forces. The main victims have been ethnic Albanian Kosovars, some 90 percent of the population of this Yugoslav territory. The standard estimate is two thousand deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

But let’s look at the U.S. record.

Consider, for example, Colombia.

In Colombia, according to State Department estimates, the annual level of political killing by the government and its paramilitary associates is about at the level of Kosovo, and refugee flight primarily from their atrocities is well over a million. Yet Colombia has been the leading Western hemisphere recipient of U.S. arms and training even as violence there increased through the 1990s. Our assistance is still increasing, now under a “drug war” pretext dismissed by almost all serious observers. The Clinton administration was particularly enthusiastic in its praise for Colombian president Gaviria, whose tenure in office was responsible for “appalling levels of violence” according to human rights organizations, even surpassing his predecessors.

Or consider Turkey, a neighbor to the former Yugoslavia.

By a very conservative estimate, Turkish repression of Kurds in the 1990s falls in the category of Kosovo. Over a million Kurds fled to the unofficial Kurdish capital, Diyarbakir, from 1990 to 1994 as the Turkish army was devastating the countryside. The year 1994 marked two records: it was, according to Jonathan Randal who reported from the scene, both “the year of the worst repression in the Kurdish provinces” of Turkey and the year when Turkey became “the biggest single importer of American military hardware and thus the world’s largest arms purchaser.” When human rights groups exposed Turkey’s use of U.S. jets to bomb villages, the Clinton administration found ways to evade laws requiring suspension of arms deliveries, much as it was doing in Indonesia and elsewhere.

Colombia and Turkey explain their (U.S.-supported) atrocities on grounds that they are defending their countries from the threat of terrorist guerrillas—as does the government of Yugoslavia.

I could supply many other recent examples of the moral fiber behind U.S. foreign policy directions (consider, for example, the effects of our economic boycott of Iraq, where it is estimated that about five thousand children die a month from the malnutrition and malnutrition-related diseases brought on by the UN embargo insisted upon by the United States). These and other examples might also be kept in mind when we read the awed rhetoric about how the “moral compass” of the Clinton administration is at last functioning properly in the case of Kosovo.

If this administration had a moral compass, it would not have undertaken the bombing. Predictably, the threat of NATO bombing led to an escalation of atrocities by the Serbian army and paramilitaries and to the departure of international observers, which of course had the same effect. Two days after the bombing began, Commanding General Wesley Clark declared that it was “entirely predictable” that Serbian terror and violence would intensify after the NATO bombing, exactly as happened.

A standard argument for the bombing is that we had to do something: we could not simply stand by as the atrocities continued. That is never true. One choice, always, is to follow the Hippocratic principle: “First, do no harm.” If you can think of no way to adhere to that elementary principle, then do nothing. There are always ways that can be considered. Diplomacy and negotiations are never at an end.

Tikkun: What are the primary arguments that would lead a progressive person to be opposed to U.S. military intervention in Kosovo, if our stated goal is to stop the genocide there?

Chomsky: That was not the stated goal. That is a goal that was concocted weeks later, for the simple reason that no one was claiming that “genocide” was taking place before the bombing. The stated goal was to prove the credibility of NATO, to stop ethnic cleansing that was going on inside of Kosovo, and to bring stability to Eastern Europe. To quote from Clinton’s televised address, the stated goal was about credibility, upholding values, protecting our interests, and advancing the cause of peace.

Look at the background. Starting in 1989, when Milosevic had withdrawn autonomy from the Kosovars, the Kosovars had launched a quite remarkable nonviolent opposition which persisted for the next six years. They were in effect creating a parallel civil society.

Meanwhile, in order to achieve a peace settlement in Bosnia at the Dayton peace talks in 1995, the United States completely sold out the Kosovars’ struggle for autonomy and, they hoped, eventual independence. Bosnia was effectively partitioned between greater Croatia and greater Serbia. Kosovo was to remain under the authority of Serbia. Because the United States rewarded pre-Dayton nonviolence with a willingness to sell out their interests, many Kosovars concluded that the United States only respected force and violence. At that point, the Kosovo Liberation Army, previously a ragtag force, began to gain popular support and soon began a significant guerrilla struggle, attacking police stations and carrying out other actions. According to the United States and NATO, the Serbian crackdown began in February of 1998.

Now what humanitarian interest suddenly stirs the United States? The two thousand people killed in Kosovo this year, while an atrocity, is a fraction of the atrocities committed in southeastern Turkey in their own country against Kurds in the 1990s where deaths, presumably mostly Kurdish, are estimated at thirty thousand and refugees at well over a million. It’s one-tenth the number of civilians that Israel killed in Lebanon in 1982 after invading another country with no pretext whatsoever. The three hundred and fifty thousand Kosovar refugees are roughly half the number of refugees that resulted from the Israeli expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. These population expulsions are called “atrocities” only when some enemy commits them.

Tikkun: You think there’s no difference between Israel in 1948 and …

Chomsky: Every two cases are different: I was simply talking about scale.

At the end of 1998 there was a cease-fire in Kosovo. Two thousand European monitors were introduced. Then that cease-fire broke down. The threat of NATO bombings increased the level of violence. The monitors were withdrawn, which again increased the level of violence. By the end of March NATO bombed, and then we saw a huge escalation of violence.

Tikkun: What is your theory about why the United States engaged in this action, if not for humanitarian concerns? Certainly the bombing does not help Clinton politically; he must have known that he would almost certainly face a divided country and the risk of being drawn into sending troops to fight. No president would risk this unless he either really believed in what he was doing or had some overwhelming American interest at stake.

Chomsky: The United States is not going in there to save the oppressed. If we wanted to save the oppressed we could have supported the nonviolent movement instead of selling them out at Dayton.

Any kind of turbulence in the Balkans is a threat to the interests of rich, privileged, powerful people. Therefore, any turbulence in the Balkans is called a crisis. The same circumstances would not be a crisis were they to occur in Sierra Leone, or Central America, or even Turkey. But in Europe, the heartland of American economic interests, any threat in the Balkans has the possibility of spilling over. Refugees cause problems in Europe. The Kosovo conflict could lead to a Greek-Turkish war, or bring in the Russians, or undermine Macedonia.

Why did they pick this strategy?

We could have turned to the UN, as is required by international law and treaty obligations. But Madeleine Albright, speaking for the United States, has made it clear that we will act “multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must” (meaning when you at the UN don’t go along with us). The United States rejected World Court jurisdiction over ten years ago; we stated officially that we can no longer accept the World Court because the countries of the world no longer accept our position. So that leaves us with NATO, where the United States dominates.

Within NATO, there was a debate about how to proceed. The United States and Britain advocated force. NATO powers, including Britain, wanted to get UN authorization for sending unarmed monitors. The United States refused to allow the “neuralgic word ‘authorize’,” the New York Times reported. The Clinton administration “was sticking to its stand that NATO should be able to act independently of the United Nations.” We carried out the bombing, even with the expectation of increased atrocities, in order, in part, to preserve the “credibility” of NATO.

Tikkun: What do you expect will be the resolution to this action?

Chomsky: Some Western leaders have begun talking about an eventual partition of Kosovo. This would be an ugly outcome, because 90 percent of the province is Albanian. The likely partition would give the northern part of their country, the part that has not only the historical monuments that the Serb nationalists care about but most of the resources and wealth as well, to the Serbs. The south, which is kind of like a desert, would go to the 90 percent of Kosovars who are Albanian. Yet that ugly solution would be better than another outcome that may be in the minds of some military leaders—that once the Albanian population is expelled and the Serbs flee to the north, the United States may just carpet bomb the country, a Carthaginian solution aimed at showing our “credibility,” as we did in Vietnam south of the twentieth parallel.

Compassion with Teeth
Caring Requires Intervention

Michael Lerner

Noam Chomsky makes many compelling points that need to be acknowledged. The United States has pursued a foreign policy often driven by a narrow desire to protect American investments and corporate power, and to open markets for new investments. As a result, the U.S. government has actively supported repressive regimes, trained military and paramilitary forces in the use of torture, and almost always subordinated concerns about human rights to concerns about American economic and military interests. The Clinton administration has continued this policy, most flagrantly in its relationship to China, but also in its policies in Turkey, Colombia, and dozens of other places.

It may well be that our government’s focus on the former Yugoslavia is undergirded by a special concern about the way that our investments in Europe might be impacted by a widening struggle, or by our special interest in people we consider “white.”

Yet many on the Left had previously argued that our passive role in Bosnia and Kosovo reflected our indifference to Moslems and other “peoples of color,” or even reflected America’s determination to make a crusade against Islamic peoples replace the Cold War as a way to justify our military budget. Now, however, we are on the non-Christian, non-white side of the struggle, belying the expectations of those who mechanistically reduce policy to class or racial interests. The startling reality is this: Americans (and others around the world as well) often manifest a powerful capacity to transcend their class/race/sex-role conditioning and let their deepest humanity flourish—so you can’t always reduce policy to “interests.”

In fact, our contention at Tikkun has been that no matter how deeply assimilated we are into the dominant ethos of “looking out for number one”—that is, of maximizing our own material well-being without regard to the consequences for others—most of us nevertheless have an irrepressible urge to connect to some higher purpose in our lives and to recognize the humanity and preciousness of others. Our deep desire for meaning, love, and connection to others is often on the defensive, but it can never be fully stamped out.

Our desire for connection and for a world based on love makes it all the more difficult for us to advocate armed struggle with anyone, and is one of the reasons why under almost every possible circumstance we at Tikkun have a predisposition to oppose armed force and to seek negotiations. But when we see acts of mass murder and genocide, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and acts of brutality and rape, we feel impelled to act. When it was the United States doing this directly in Vietnam, we did everything possible to disrupt its capacity to wage war. And now, when we see this kind of behavior in Kosovo, we reluctantly conclude that coercive or even violent interventions may be justified and morally required.

To such a position, peace activists respond that the culprit is Milosevic, and that we could take a large step towards resolving this crisis by bringing him to trial, while avoiding the bombing of innocent Serbian people. Certainly Milosevic’s actions have been criminal. But the murders and rapes and mass expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars were committed by tens of thousands of “willing executioners” cheered on by a Serbian society which had supported the genocide in Bosnia and seemed willing to go along with its continuation in Kosovo. In the years before the bombing, when alternative media exposed the war crimes in Serbia, the opposition forces received only minimal support from a society that seemed all too ready to rally around Serbian nationalism and to justify genocide to itself.

As someone who was fired from his job in a university, physically beaten, and then sent to prison for his role in organizing nonviolent demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, I’m well aware that the costs for opposing one’s government can be high (and higher still under a ruthless dictator). But just as many of us feel that the German people should have done more to oppose Hitler, so we have to hold accountable those in Serbia who did little to organize to oppose its genocidal policies.

In most circumstances where violence is advocated, we would oppose it for a stronger reason: we know that we can never get to the kind of world we want by using violence as the means. We respect those who take that stand in this case, and hope that they will couple their pacifist conviction will the traditional pacifists’ willingness to put their bodies on the line in a pacifistic way. For example, if hundreds of thousands of pacifists were willing to go to the Balkans to serve as agents of nonviolent witness and to protect the victims of Serbian violence, such an action could have a profound effect on building the world in which we all believe.

In the long term we also agree with Chomsky that the UN and other world bodies are the appropriate vehicles to resolve inter- and intra-national disputes. Just as it seems appropriate to call the police when one hears convincing screams from a neighbor’s house or when one witnesses a powerful gang beating up on others who seem unable to defend themselves, we’d be willing to call an international police force charged with this task, supervised not to use excessive force, and democratically responsive to the world’s population.

Unfortunately, nothing of this sort exists.

In saying that we favor calling the domestic or international police, we don’t mean to deny that the police themselves sometimes have dirty hands. The vicious racism of the New York City police department and its propensity to violence is repeated in many communities throughout the United States. But unless we had specific reasons to think that those issues were going to come into play in the specific case in front of us, we’d still call them when we saw someone being raped or physically assaulted and we had been unsuccessful in intervening ourselves. So in this circumstance we are willing to support U.S. intervention, with considerable trepidation, even though we know of its history of dirty hands. For similar reasons, many of us are glad the United States and the Soviet Union intervened against Hitler, even though they both may have had self-interested reasons for doing so, and even though both had a history of oppression in other aspects of their foreign policy.

We would prefer an international and democratically controlled force, and we hope that the United Nations will eventually get restructured in ways that build the confidence of the people of the world that it is democratic, ethically-based, and responsive to some higher vision than the self-interests of the ruling elites of the countries which compose it. But this is not the case at the moment. The structure of the UN allows for the major powers to block such interventions when they interfere with that power’s perceived self-interest. Thus, the UN was totally unable to stop American aggression in Vietnam or Chinese aggression toward Tibet or Russian aggression toward Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia. And in the case at hand, given Russia’s close ties and patriarchal sympathies with the thugs in Serbia, it has been totally unable to take decisive steps to prevent genocidal acts in Bosnia or Kosovo. Nor should we mystify the notion of multilateralism—it is perfectly conceivable to us that had the UN been in existence in 1939, it might have opposed any attempts to use force against Hitler and might have turned its back on the genocide of the Jews. If the peoples of the world had democratically decided to stand by and let the genocide continue, we would have supported unilateral intervention by those powers who were willing to do so.

By the same logic, given the role of Russia in the UN and the willingness of so many others to stand around and talk about their commitment to diplomacy in Kosovo while people are being murdered and expelled, it becomes appropriate for those who see a clear and present reality of murder and genocide to, after exhausting diplomatic channels, use their own armed forces to intervene. It’s not only appropriate; it’s morally mandatory. One reason why Jews have such strong criticisms of the nations of the world is that we remember their failure to intervene to assist Jews during the Holocaust. Neutrality in the face of murder is immoral.

It is reasonable to worry that any intervention we make in Kosovo may legitimate future interventions—interventions officially justified on humanitarian grounds whose real goal is to perpetuate American self-interest. The tragedy of the Balkans today is that the West has so discredited itself in the past that when it finally confronts an intervention that is morally justifiable, it has been far too hesitant to engage.

Yet the assault on this intervention by many people on the Left bespeaks both their inability to make fine distinctions and their crude, ideological interpretation of reality that precludes any complex assessment of a specific reality. The drivel about Kosovo intervention being a manifestation of America’s relentless pursuit of self-interest is just ridiculous. In fact, it would have been far easier for Clinton to intervene in Bosnia or Kosovo, and to intervene in a far more decisive way, had there been such an obvious element of self-interest (as there was, for example, in the far more decisive intervention in Kuwait). It is precisely the absence of significant levels of self-interest which accounts both for the U.S. willingness to sit on the sidelines for so many years, and for our hesitancy, even now, to intervene without the decisive force which might have prevented Milosevic’s forces from being able to continue to expel the population during the first two weeks of fighting.

Yet the move towards intervention may ultimately represent the best moment in Clinton’s presidency, a moment in which he remembered the dramatic appeal of Elie Wiesel at the opening of the Holocaust Museum some six years ago, when Wiesel turned to Clinton and told him he must act in Bosnia to prevent genocide. Leftist and rightist ideologues may be unable to accept this—but sometimes there are moments when a human being suddenly responds to his or her own highest voice and refuses to take the easiest and most self-interested path. The cynicism of a society, a media, and a Left so deeply committed to self-interest may be unable to recognize this moment of transcendence, and may insist on reducing it to some convoluted story of self-interest. Yet from our standpoint, it is critical for all of us to learn how to validate a more complex story.

It may be true that by the time you read these words Clinton will have moved away from this voice of principle, just as it may be true that his own wavering about going with that voice may be part of the reason that he moved so timidly even after deciding to intervene. We know that Clinton may quickly move back into his place of fear, and from there calculate that getting out of the war in Kosovo fits his narrow self-interest. But it is equally true that virtually all people on this planet have a higher part of themselves, and that that part does sometimes respond to moral and spiritual values and not just to self-interest. A more sophisticated account of human motivations has to recognize the flow of hope that sometimes makes it possible for people to go for their highest values, and also the ways in which the surrounding cynicism often makes people retreat from their highest values and fall back into more narrowly self-interested paths.

Because we wish to forge a different foreign policy in the United States, we need to be engaged in creating the circumstances in which Americans can feel greater confidence in staying with those moments of transcendence even when they seem to violate self-interest. The struggle for a politics of meaning foreign policy starts by combating the instinctive cynicism that makes us feel that “everyone is always going to be motivated by self-interest” with its correlate that “therefore the only rational thing for us is to be similarly motivated.” If we want a different foreign policy, we need to foster confidence in people’s sense that they can follow their highest moral voice. That’s why we must intervene on behalf of the powerless in Kosovo—and thereby begin to counter the deep cynicism that has built up among so many people of the world when they have seen that no one was willing to intervene on behalf of the victims in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kurdistan, Palestine, and other places of oppression.

A politics of meaning foreign policy is one directed at building this sense of mutual confidence and hope. International law and human rights may sometimes express the level of hope and trust being constructed. But there is a danger that in talking the language of law and rights we move too far away from what we are really seeking, which is to develop in each of us a deep understanding of our mutual interconnectedness, of respect and even awe for the way each person on this planet is a manifestation of God, of the necessary unity of all human beings and the ultimate Unity of All Being. The language of law and rights often stultifies our capacity to remember what we are really fighting for.

The tragic irony of the real world is that sometimes to get to this level of caring, to create a context in which it feels safe, we must first or simultaneously use force to restrain those who are acting in a bullying manner. In kabbalistic language, chesed (lovingkindness) must be balanced with gevurah (strong boundaries). In Kosovo this requires a full-scale intervention, including U.S. troops that would build the world’s confidence by showing that we are willing to share the risks. This is not a question of “NATO’s credibility,” but of our own credibility as caring neighbors. If we are unwilling to bring in enough troops to liberate and rebuild Kosovo, to give it full independence from Serbia (without ceding to Serbs the richer, northern part of Kosovo), and to fully punish Serbian war criminals, we should never have started the bombing and should stop it immediately. NATO’s actual intervention, which in mid-April looks half-hearted, may have been worse than doing nothing. If we allow the genocidal bully of Serbia to succeed in displacing ethnic Albanians from northern Kosovo, we will have turned the phrase “never again” into meaningless rhetoric, and the bombing becomes counter-productive violence.

Of course, such military intervention is not enough. We also need to forge new directions which embody our highest vision more positively. Hence the importance of our powerful involvement with the fate of the refugees—giving the whole world a chance to show, as it has so far done in a beautiful way, how many millions of people really do care and would love to respond with their most loving and idealistic side if given the chance.

Thus, we are advocating compassion with teeth, a compassion that isn’t just mushy sentiment. Yet it takes sentiment seriously—and does not allow it to be lost in the emotionally deadening legalese of rights and international law. Keeping alive a language of love and caring, affirming the humanity of the other including the humanity of those whom we must reluctantly fight, is central to the gradual thawing of cynicism that we seek. A politics of meaning approach to foreign policy is one that seeks to make concrete judgments about what actions in a given situation will produce the greatest amount of realizable hopefulness, and how to open the largest numbers of people to the possibility of a very different kind of world.