Bush criticised for ‘confused’ Middle East goals

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Tony Jones

Lateline, April 8, 2002

There are now complex connections between the Middle East crisis and President George W Bush’s plans to expand his war on terrorism. When Mr Bush made his seminal speech to Congress after the September 11 attacks, the US President can hardly have been expecting swathes of his rhetoric to be used so soon afterwards by one of his closest allies, to justify another war on terrorism inside Palestinian towns and cities. But that is exactly what Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon has done, much to the President’s discomfort. Mr Sharon’s linkage of his assault to the President’s own principles caused vacillation and confusion inside the US Administration. At first, Mr Bush appeared to give a “green light” to the Israeli actions. Then as it became obvious that the conflict might spread, he began to backpeddle. Now he’s calling for Mr Sharon to withdraw his forces immediately, but as we’ve heard, the Israeli PM is refusing to come to heel. The President has been widely criticised in the US for his foreign policy gyrations. Tony Jones talks to one of the most vociferous critics of President Bush, Professor Noam Chomsky, speaking from his office at MIT in Boston. Professor Chomsky has for many years been considered the voice of the American “left”.

TONY JONES: Noam Chomsky, President Bush’s position on the Middle East crisis is evolving fast now, but until recently there have been confusing and contradictory signals coming from his administration.

What do you think has been happening?

PROFESSOR NOAM CHOMSKY, AUTHOR: The confusion inside the Administration I think, is a confusion about goals.

I mean, the right wing, the hard line right wing, is in favour of escalating violence against the Palestinians until they’re crushed.

Others are concerned with the impact in the Arab world, which is complicated and within that framework, they’re trying to find a policy.

The whole thing is so badly skewed it’s hard to even discuss it.

There’s no symmetry in this situation.

There’s plenty of violence and terror on both sides, which is awful, and no way to justify it.

But the fact is the Palestinians have been under military occupation for 35 years.

It has been harsh and brutal and violent throughout – racist, humiliating, destructive.

It has been backed entirely by the United States unilaterally.

It includes expansion of settlement into the occupied territories.

It was actually Barak in his last year, broke all records since Oslo, always supported by the United States.

There’s just no symmetry.

In the diplomatic scene, there is plenty of criticism you can make about the Arab states.

In fact, it’s hard to think of anything nice to say about them.

But the fact of the matter is that what has been blocking what is now the Saudi Arabian plan, is unilateral Israeli opposition.

TONY JONES: Given what you’re saying about the brutality of the occupation, do you think the Palestinian suicide bombers are freedom fighters or terrorists?

PROFESSOR NOAM CHOMSKY: Terrorists – they’re both, actually.

They’re trying to fight for freedom, but doing it in a totally unacceptable immoral way.

Of course they’re terrorists and there’s been Palestinian terrorism all the way through.

I have always opposed it.

I oppose it now.

But it’s very small as compared with the US-backed Israeli terrorism.

Quite typically, violence reflects the means of violence.

It’s not unusual.

State terror is almost always much more extreme than retail terror and this is no exception.

TONY JONES: If you accept that the bombers are not justified, the argument then shifts to whether or not the victims of those terrorist bombings have the right to take whatever action they deem necessary to put an end to this, which has been Ariel Sharon’s justification of his assault from the beginning.

PROFESSOR NOAM CHOMSKY: They are certainly justified in defending themselves, but they are not justified in occupying another people in gross violation of international law with brutality and terror of their own.

That’s not justified and that’s been going on for 35 years.

So if a political settlement, if there are moves towards a real political settlement, if the US and Israel will accept that, then they will be entirely justified in defending themselves.

But you can’t call it self-defence when you’re carrying out a military occupation.

That doesn’t justify the terrorist acts but the concept of self-defence doesn’t arise.

TONY JONES: Is there any comparison between the suicide bombers and the September 11 suicide bombers?


Al Qaeda was not under US military occupation.

They claim they were, like their justification is that the US was occupying Saudi Arabia.

You can argue about their claim.

It certainly doesn’t justify their act.

What the right response was to the terrorist bombings on September 11 is another question.

If we want to talk about that, we should be willing to establish some principles.

So for example, one elementary principle is that if something is right for us, then it’s right for others.

If it’s wrong for others, it’s wrong for us.

If we can’t accept that principle, we can’t even talk about right and wrong.

So if those who believe that the right way to respond to September 11 was by bombing Afghans, should also believe that the right way to respond to US terror is by bombing Washington.

I don’t know anybody who believes that.

I certainly don’t.

So therefore, almost the entire discussion of this topic that has taken place since September 11 can simply be excluded on the grounds that it does not even rise to the minimal moral level.

That does leave open the question of what the right response was to Al Qaeda terrorism, and I believe that there was a right response, not the one that was taken, but that has nothing to do with what’s going on in Israel and Palestine.

TONY JONES: Israel’s case is that precisely there are comparisons to be made and that therefore they’re justified in applying the US remedies to terrorism, up to and including regime change?

PROFESSOR NOAM CHOMSKY: The parallel is ridiculous.

Israel has been carrying out, has carried out a 35-year occupation which has been brutal, violent, harsh, destructive from the start.

There is just no comparison.

It does not justify Palestinian terrorist acts or the more extreme Israeli terrorist acts which continue, but there’s just no way to make, to compare it in any sensible fashion.

TONY JONES: Can we shift now to a broader focus and President Bush’s plans to attack Iraq, which are critically affected obviously by what’s happening in the Middle East?

Now would the credible threat of a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction justify a pre-emptive strike against Iraq?

PROFESSOR NOAM CHOMSKY: Pre-emptive strikes need extremely strong evidence and there’s a heavy burden of justification.

There’s nothing remotely like that.

It’s extremely hard to take Bush and his advisers seriously when they talk about their reasons for wanting to depose Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein is a monster, there’s no doubt about that.

Getting rid of him would be a boon to the people of Iraq and the world.

But Bush’s advisers are not opposed to him because of his crimes or because of his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and we all know that.

When he committed his worst crimes, that was with the support of this President’s father.

The support continued, Britain as well, well after the worst crimes were committed.

He was a loyal friend and ally.

Furthermore, both Britain and the United States continued to provide him with the means to develop weapons of mass destruction.

He was much more dangerous then than he is now.

Furthermore, if you’re looking at the people the United States is trying to gather to replace him, like the general who can’t come to the meeting because he’s under investigation in Denmark for participation in a massacre – does that indicate any effort to bring some decent outcome for the Iraqi people?

The question of what should be done about Saddam Hussein is a very serious question, but you cannot take these people seriously.

TONY JONES: What sort of proofs though would they have to supply, because those proofs appear to be beyond the scope of international agencies to provide?

In the end won’t they end up relying on their own intelligence agencies?

PROFESSOR NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s not trusting its own intelligence.

It’s trusting its own intentions, which is something quite different.

We do not have any reason to believe any state, certainly not one with the record of the United States, should be given any authorisation to act independently, violently, on the basis of its own leadership groups.

That’s ridiculous.

We don’t allow it to anyone else, why to the United States?

TONY JONES: What about a pre-emptive strike, that was suggested recently by a former CIA director, specifically aimed at facilities that create chemical, nuclear or biological weapons?

PROFESSOR NOAM CHOMSKY: First of all, they certainly have made available no evidence about such facilities or any indication that they pose a threat or even that they’re aware of attacking them.

That’s not what they’re aiming at.

What they’re aiming at, as we all know, let’s not be innocent, Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world.

One way or another, the US is going to attempt to regain control of them and deny them to its adversaries who have an inside track, primarily France and Russia, and they may think this is a good pretext for it.

Saddam Hussein remains the same monster he was when the US and Britain actively and happily supported him right through his worst crimes, right through the period when he was dangerous and developing weapons of mass destruction.

That remains true.

But let’s not delude ourselves about the reasons that might be used as a pretext, the actual reasons for what will be described under other pretexts.

TONY JONES: But there is a growing momentum in statements by American political leaders and in the press and in statements leaked by intelligence agencies, to provide proofs to at least convince the US public that an attack on Iraq is necessary?

NOAM CHOMSKY: There’s no doubt that, I would drop the word proofs, but there’s no doubt that serious efforts are being made to construct pretexts which will justify an attack against Iraq in an effort to regain control over the world’s second largest oil reserves.

An attack I mean, to get rid of Saddam Hussein, that would be a boon, as I said, but that’s not the goal.

The goal, as was described pretty accurately – remember that right after the Gulf War, when the US had total control over the region, there was an uprising in the south, a Shi’ite uprising, which might very well have toppled Saddam Hussein except that George Bush effectively authorised Saddam Hussein to crush it by using military helicopters and other means.

That was explained publicly.

Thomas Friedman, who was then the diplomatic correspondent of the ‘New York Times’, wrote that this was necessary because as he put it, the best of all worlds for the United States would be an iron-fisted military junta which would rule Iraq the same way Saddam Hussein did, much to the pleasure of US allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia and of course, though he didn’t mention it, the boss in Washington.

That was the attitude then when Bush permitted Saddam Hussein to crush a Shi’ite rebellion.

There’s been no change.

If the US does do something to try to regain control of Iraq by force, it has to maintain that condition.

It cannot allow a democratic regime to emerge, even limited democracy, because the majority of the population is Shi’ite and if there is any democratic participation, chances are quite strong that it will move towards an alliance with Iran or at least towards connections with Iran, which the US will certainly block, which is exactly why the US is now trying to organise Iraqi generals who were involved in some of the worst atrocities, to be the iron-fisted military junta, which will be a Sunni military junta, to rule Iraq the way Saddam Hussein did, just as Thomas Friedman described and indeed advocated.

TONY JONES: We’ll have to leave it there, Noam Chomsky.

Thanks for taking the time to join us tonight.

NOAM CHOMSKY: OK. Glad to be with you.