The credibility of NATO

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Mary Lou Finlay

As it Happens, April 16, 1999

QUESTION: Do you think that, by and large, you and we are getting a reasonably accurate picture of what is going on in this war?

CHOMSKY: I think the reporters on the ground, many of them, are producing quite accurate stories: the way the framework and the interpretation handles the facts is another question. Inaccurate isn’t the word for it, it is ludicrous.

QUESTION: Well, tell us about that.

CHOMSKY: This is presented — well, I haven’t read the Canadian media — but in the United States and what I’ve seen of Europe, it’s presented as a humanitarian endeavor, and that is repeated over and over. Well, if anything is obvious, it’s the opposite: it cannot possibly be considered by a rational person as having humanitarian motives.

QUESTION: You don’t believe that the reason for the NATO action was to rescue the Kosovo Albanians from oppression?

CHOMSKY: It is virtually inconceivable on rational grounds and there are simple reasons for that. One reason is simply Kosovo itself. Up until the US/NATO bombing March 24th, there had been, according to NATO, 2000 people killed on all sides, and a couple of hundred thousand refugees. Well, that’s bad, that’s a humanitarian crisis, but unfortunately it’s the kind you can find all over the world. For example, it happens to be almost identical in numbers to what the State Department describes as the last year in Colombia: 300,000 refugees, 2 or 3 thousand people killed, overwhelmed by the military forces and the paramilitary associates, who the US arms. And, in fact, arms are going up. That’s the way the US, Britain and other countries act when there are humanitarian crises, namely, they escalate them. Now, what happened in Kosovo? Well, in fact, the same thing. There were options on March 23rd, and they chose an option which, predictably, changed the situation from a Colombia-style crisis to maybe approaching a disaster, and that was a conscious choice. The effects? Let me quote the US/NATO commanding General, Wesley Clark: two days after the bombing he said it was “entirely predictable” that the reaction of the Serb army on the ground would be exactly as it was.

QUESTION: I must interject here and say that our own foreign minister has said nobody foresaw the scale of MilosevicÕs response.

CHOMSKY: That’s ridiculous. Maybe they didn’t foresee the exact scale, but when you bomb people, they don’t throw flowers at you. They react.

QUESTION: Let me ask you what you think the motive was.

CHOMSKY: One thing is that any kind of turbulence in the Balkans is what’s called in technical terms a crisis. That means it can harm the interests of rich and powerful people. So if people are slaughtering each other in Sierra Leone, Colombia, Turkey, or wherever, that doesn’t affect rich and powerful people very much, therefore they are glad either to just watch it, or even contribute to it — massively as in the case of Turkey or Colombia. But, in the Balkans, it’s different. It can affect European interests and therefore US interests, so it becomes a crisis, any kind of turbulence. Then you want to quiet it down. Well, how do you do that? The US flatly refuses to allow the institutions of international order to be involved, so no UN, and that’s pretty explicit. So they have to turn to NATO. Well, NATO the US dominates, so that’s acceptable and then you turn to force. Why force? Well, several reasons, and here I think Clinton, Blair, and others have been pretty honest about it. The point that they reiterate over and over is that it is necessary to establish the credibility of NATO. Now, all we have to do is translate from Newspeak. What does “credibility of NATO” mean? Are they concerned with the credibility of Italy or the credibility of Belgium? Obviously not. They are concerned with the credibility of the United States. Now, what does the “credibility of the United States” mean? Well, you can ask any Mafia don, and he’ll explain it. So, suppose some Mafia don is running some area in Chicago, what does he mean by “credibility”? He means that you have got to show people that they better be obedient or else. That’s credibility.

QUESTION: I want to ask you to go back to the United Nations for a moment, though, because — and if I may bring up the Canadian arguments again — because Canada has long been a supporter, in fact, of the UN, of international law, in every instance I can think of except this one. The argument our foreign minister and our Prime Minister give now, and in fact all of Parliament, is that: Yes, but the UN is now a helpless organization — it could do nothing to prevent slaughters and massacres — therefore we had to do something; and there is the UN Human Rights Declaration that gave them authorization.

CHOMSKY: The UN Human Rights Declaration gives no authorization. It is perfectly true that there is a tension between the UN charter, which bars the use of a threat or the use of force, and the Universal Declaration, which guarantees — theoretically — the rights of people against oppressive states. But Canada doesn’t care at all about the latter; Canada has a horrible record in that respect. For example, take Suharto’s Indonesia, which is a brutal, murderous state. I think Canada was supporting it all the way through because it was making money out of the situation. And we can go around the world. Canada strongly supported the US invasion of South Vietnam, of the whole of Indochina. In fact Canada became the per capita largest war exporter, trying to make as much money as it could from the murder of people in Indochina. In fact, I’d suggest that you look back at the comment by a well known and respected Canadian diplomat, I think his name was John Hughes, some years ago, who defined what he called the Canadian idea, namely “we uphold our principles but we find a way around them”. Well, that’s pretty accurate. And Canada is not unique in this respect, maybe a little more hypocritical.

QUESTION: So, Professor Chomsky, has this action done any harm to the United Nations and the advancement of international law or was it already a moot thing?

CHOMSKY: Of course it has. You could argue that since the United States, the leading power in the world, has brazen contempt for international law, it doesn’t mean much. But there is no doubt that this act is another blow against a rather fragile system of world order. But that’s, in a way, you could argue, the least of it. I mean, it has been of extreme harm to the people of Kosovo, that is obvious. It has undermined, and maybe permanently destroyed, a courageous and promising democratic movement in Belgrade, which was the best hope of getting rid of Milosevic. And it has caused considerable disruption and danger in surrounding areas, including the Yugoslavia republic of Montenegro and also Macedonia.

QUESTION: Let me ask you a question about our perceptions, rhetoric, and manipulation, then, because our opinion polls right now tell us that the majority of Americans and Canadians support this action and, as far as I can tell, they are doing it because they believe it is the right thing to do, that it was the humanitarian thing to do, that they are saving people.

CHOMSKY: That’s right, and the reason is clear enough. If you are told over and over again, morning to night, with close to 100% unanimity thundering at you that “we are doing this to save lives,” you might tend to believe these absurd claims, although you could know with a moment’s reflection their absurdity.

QUESTION: Do you think that people are also affected by the interviews with refugees, including the people who were supposedly bombed by NATO by mistake, who say: Well, it was a tragedy of course, but we don’t care, tell NATO to keep on, we are with NATO, NATO’s doing the right thing.

CHOMSKY: There are many people around the world who think you ought to bomb Washington. That doesn’t make it a wise course of action.

QUESTION: But these are the victims who are saying, carry on.

CHOMSKY: Well, of course they say it. Similarly, the victims in Turkey would be delighted if the US would stop arming the Turkish government and would bomb Ankara…

QUESTION: But, they have lost, as you just said… They are all refugees now and they are still saying it is the right thing to do.

CHOMSKY: When you are a refugee, what you hate is the person who most immediately drove you out with a gun, of course. If people sitting in Toronto can’t think through the fact that the US, Canadian, and British actions escalated the atrocities, predictably, how do you expect a refugee on the ground to think about it?

QUESTION: There is near unanimity about this in the Canadian parliament. If what you are saying is correct, how is it that everyone is so misled, so woolly-headed about this?

CHOMSKY: I think the facts that I just described are quite plain. For one thing, we live in highly indoctrinated societies, with an intellectual class that is extremely subordinate to power. And since people are, as a result, totally bombarded with propaganda about how itÕs not our fault if the consequence of our actions is an escalation of atrocities, they don’t think about it.

QUESTION: Would you have done anything different?

CHOMSKY: On March 23rd? Well, there were three choices. One was to act in such a way as to escalate the atrocities, that’s what was chosen. A second choice was: do nothing. A third choice is to act so as to mitigate the atrocities. Now, if you can’t think of any way to mitigate atrocities, the best choice was to do nothing. Okay, was there any way to mitigate the atrocities? Well, I suppose there were diplomatic options that were open. The Serbian parliament passed a resolution on March 23rd, the day before the bombing, in which it said that they would not accept a NATO force — hardly surprising: Canada wouldn’t accept a Warsaw pact force — but they proposed that there could be a move toward autonomy for Kosovo and that, after that, there should be an international force. Well, is that an acceptable offer? We don’t know, because the US wouldn’t even pay any attention to it. But pursuing that offer, through the mechanisms of world order such as the UN Security Council or neutral countries like India or others, would certainly have been better than doing nothing and vastly better than acting to escalate the atrocities.

QUESTION: What do we do now?

CHOMSKY: If a doctor is giving you medicine which is killing you, the first thing you would want is for him to stop giving you the medicine, not give more of it. So the first thing we ought to do is stop doing what is harming the situation. The second thing we should do is hand over diplomacy and negotiations to some credible source. So hand it over to the Security Council, to neutral countries, maybe India, South Africa, Scandinavian countries, anyone who hasn’t completely discredited themselves, to have them undertake diplomatic initiatives and see if there is a way to resolve the distinction between, for example, the Serbian parliament proposal and the NATO proposal.

QUESTION: Do you think we are likely to do any of that?

CHOMSKY: The US and Canada? Very unlikely, because these are “jingoist” countries, which are highly subordinate to power and where people don’t stop to think through the consequences of what they are doing, unfortunately.

QUESTION: NATO will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next week and they are all congratulating themselves on having found a new role.

CHOMSKY: Yes, they have found a new role and a very ugly role, a role which has sharply escalated atrocities, exactly as they predicted, and that has caused extreme damage elsewhere, including the democratic movement in Belgrade, let alone world order. So if they want to celebrate that, fine. I’m not going to be celebrating.