Noam Chomsky interviewed by Patrick Cain

The Activist, June, 1999

QUESTION: Let’s define some of the language we are hearing around this war. Can you comment on the use of the terms ‘humanitarian crisis’, ‘genocide’, and ‘ethnic cleansing’ as they are being applied to Kosovo?

CHOMSKY: Well, for starters, the concept called ‘humanitarian crisis’ has a technical meaning, which does not have much to do with what might reasonably be assumed to be the defining criteria of the term. The technical meaning of humanitarian crisis is a problem somewhere that threatens the interests of rich and powerful people. That is the essence of what makes it a crisis. Now, any disturbance in the Balkans does threaten the interests of rich and powerful people, namely, the elites of Europe and the US. So when there are humanitarian issues in the Balkans, they become a ‘humanitarian crisis’. On the other hand, if people slaughter each other in Sierra Leone or the Congo, it’s not a humanitarian crisis. As a matter of fact, Clinton just refused to provide the relatively puny sum of $100,000 for a peace-making force in the Republic of the Congo, which might well have averted a huge massacre. But those deaths do not constitute a humanitarian crisis. Neither do the many other deaths and tragedies to which the US directly contributes: the massacres in Colombia, for example, or the slaughters and expulsions of people in south-eastern Turkey, which are being carried out with crucial support from Clinton. Those aren’t humanitarian crises. But Kosovo is a crisis because it is in the Balkans.

Now, the term ‘genocide’, as applied to Kosovo, is an insult to the victims of Hitler. In fact, it’s revisionist to an extreme. If this is genocide, then there is genocide going on all over the world. And Bill Clinton is decisively implementing a lot of it. If this is genocide, then what do you call what is happening in the south-east of Turkey? The number of refugees there is huge; it’s already reached about half the level of Palestinians expelled from Palestine.

If it increases further, it may reach the number of refugees in Colombia, where the number of people killed every year by the army and paramilitary groups armed and trained by the United States is approximately the same as the number of people killed in Kosovo last year.

‘Ethnic cleansing’, on the other hand, is real. Unfortunately, it’s something that goes on and has been going on for a long time. It’s no big innovation. How come I’m living where I am instead of the original people who lived here? Did they happily walk away?

QUESTION: So human rights abuses in Kosovo are termed a ‘humanitarian crisis ‘ by the world’s most powerful state. But how did we get from that to all-out war?

CHOMSKY: Well, let’s look at the situation from the US point of view: There’s a crisis, what do we do about it? One possibility is to work through the United Nations, which is the agency responsible under treaty obligations and international law for dealing with such matters. But the US made it clear a long time ago that it has total contempt for the institutions of world order, the UN, the World Court, and so on. In fact the US has been very explicit about that. This was not always the case. In the early days of the UN, the majority of countries backed the US because of its overwhelming political power. But that began to change when decolonisation was extended and the organisation and distribution of world power shifted. Now the US can no longer count on the majority of countries to go along with its demands. The UN is no longer a pliant, and therefore no longer a relevant, institution. This proposition became very explicit during the Reagan years and even more brazen during the Clinton years. So brazen that even right-wing analysts are worried about it. There is an interesting article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, an establishment journal in the US, warning Washington that much of the world regards the US as a “rogue super-power” and the single greatest threat to their existence. In fact, the US has placed itself totally above the rule of international law and international institutions.

NATO at least has the advantage of being pretty much under US domination. Within NATO there are differences of opinion, so when there was a question last September of sending unarmed NATO monitors into Kosovo, every NATO country (with the possible exception of Britain) wanted the operation authorised by the UN Security Council as is required by treaty obligation.

But the US flatly refused. It would not allow the use of the word “authorise”. It insisted that the UN has no right to authorise any US action. When the issue moved on to negotiations and the use of force, the US and Britain, typically the two warrior states, were eager to use force and abandon negotiations. In fact, continental European diplomats were telling the press that they were annoyed by the sabre-rattling mentality of Washington. So NATO as a whole was driven to the use of force, in part, reluctantly. In fact, the reluctance increases as you get closer to the region. So England and the US are quite enthusiastic, others quite reluctant, and some in-between.

QUESTION: Why was the US so eager to use force?

CHOMSKY: The reason is obvious. When involved in a confrontation, you use your strong card and try to shift the confrontation to the area in which you are most powerful. And the strong card of the United States is the use of force. That’s perhaps the only realm of international relations where the US has a near monopoly. The consequences of using force in Yugoslavia were more or less anticipated. The NATO Commanding General Wesley Clark stated that it was entirely predictable that the bombing would sharply increase the level of atrocities and expulsion. As indeed it did. The NATO leadership could not have failed to know that the bombing would destroy the quite courageous and promising democracy movement in Serbia as indeed it did; and cause all sorts of turmoil in surrounding countries as indeed it has, though still not at the same level of crisis as Turkey or other places.

Nevertheless, it was necessary, as the Clinton foreign policy team kept stressing, to preserve the credibility of NATO. Now, when they talk about credibility, they are not talking about the credibility of Denmark or France. The Clinton Administration doesn’t care about those countries’ credibility. What they care about is the credibility of the United States. Credibility means fear: what they are concerned with is maintaining fear of the global enforcer, namely, the US. And that’s much more important than the fate of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars, or whatever other consequences are incurred. So the US and NATO have helped to create a humanitarian catastrophe by knowingly escalating an already serious crisis to catastrophic proportions.

QUESTION: Some people say that unless American soldiers start being shipped home in body bags, there will not be a serious anti-war effort in the US. What is your assessment of that?

CHOMSKY: I don’t agree with that at all. I mean, look at the history. During the 1980s there was overwhelming opposition to US atrocities in Central America. As a matter of fact, opposition was so strong that the Reagan Administration had to back off and resort to using international terrorist networks like the Contras to carry out its policies. And there were no Americans in body bags then. Today there’s strong opposition to US support for Indonesian slaughter in East Timor, and there are no American body bags. If you look at the opposition to the Vietnam War, Americans were of course being killed, but that was by no means the decisive factor. I think that the notion that only dead American soldiers will inspire a peace movement — in other words, that people are motivated only by self-interest — is US propaganda. It’s intolerable for the propaganda system to concede that people might act on moral instinct, which is in fact what they do.

QUESTION: How do you reconcile that view with the fact that, according to polls at least, the majority of Americans would support an escalation of the war, for example, through the deployment of NATO ground troops?

CHOMSKY: You have to keep in mind what these people are hearing. The public is getting its marching orders from Washington. And these orders are to disregard all other atrocities, even ones much worse than Kosovo, especially in places where the US is involved. Focus your attention only on this disaster and pretend to yourself that the crisis is all about one evil man who is carrying out genocide. This is what we are being told by our media day and night. It’s effective. Most people accept the marching orders. Then they say we’ve got to do something, like send ground troops.

The Pentagon and the European forces are strongly against it, mainly for technical reasons. I mean, it would be a catastrophe. Sounds easy to send ground troops, but think about it. First of all, it would not be easy to get them in, and would most probably take months to get them ready. It would mean facing a major guerrilla war that would probably level the whole region. That’s what happens when you send in ground troops and cause greater catastrophes. It would simply escalate the atrocities.

QUESTION: What steps do you think people who oppose this war should take now?

CHOMSKY: There is no question that people of conscience must take action against this. What can we do to end this war? Same thing as always, there’s no magical trick. It requires education, explanation, organising, demonstrating, exerting pressure… all things that we know. And this is very hard to do; it’s not like flipping on a light switch. It takes work.