Omar Badawi and Faiz Ahmad interviewed Noam Chomsky in his office at MIT on Nov. 8, 2002 regarding possible military action against Iraq. Parts of the interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Omar Badawi & Faiz Ahmad: Does the US and the rest of the world have a responsibility to change the regime in Iraq, and do they even have a right to do so?
Noam Chomsky: No one has a right, and if you don’t have a right, you don’t have a responsibility. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of regimes that need to be changed, and Saddam Hussein’s is one. But there’s a long list. For example, let’s take the United States — a great deal of the world regards the US as a “menace to itself and the world.” I’m quoting a senior member of the Carnegie Foundation writing in a mainstream British newspaper.
Incidentally there’s nothing new about regime change. That’s an old, old policy. Just last October there was a commemoration of the Cuban missile crisis — Arthur Schlesinger who attended the high level meetings in Havana pointed out accurately that it was the most dangerous moment in the history of the world — so that was not a minor event. But where did it come from? It grew out of an effort at regime change.
The US was committed to overthrowing the government of Cuba, first by terrorism; when that didn’t work, then by invasion; and when that didn’t work, more terrorism, which led up to the missile crisis and practically destroyed the world. That’s a dramatic case, but there are many others like it. Efforts at regime change are an old story.
OB: Many believe that regardless of US motives or methods for removing Saddam Hussein from power, the world and the people of Iraq will be better off without him, and they often point to the Taliban in Afghanistan as an example. The argument therefore is that military action is justified.
NC: First of all, the war aim in Afghanistan was not to overthrow the Taliban. That was an afterthought, so whatever you think about it is irrelevant. There were people who were very much committed to overthrowing the Taliban — Afghans like Abdul Haq, who was one of the most respected Afghan leaders. Haq’s position was that it was undermining their efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within and in his view the US was bombing the country in order to show its muscle and to scare the world, but not to overthrow the Taliban. One can argue about right or wrong about bombing Afghanistan, but that was not the aim, it was added three weeks later when the war was almost over.
Would the world and the people of Iraq be better off without Saddam Hussein? Absolutely. But you can go down a list from A-Z and pick out a lot of countries of which that’s true. Does the US have any special right to do this? Of course not. In fact if anyone believed Bush’s arguments, and the arguments of the pro-war people, there’s a very simple way to overthrow Saddam Hussein which has many advantages to the one that’s being pursued — help Iran invade.
Terrific — the Iranians will tear Saddam Hussein to shreds, they’ll kill anyone who’s anywhere near him, they’ll destroy all the weapons of mass destruction, they’ll make sure any successor never develops any weapons of mass destruction, which is a great contribution to disarmament, there’ll be people on the streets of Basra and Karbala cheering as the Iranian liberators come in, there won’t be any problems with the UN, there won’t be any US casualties, there won’t be any Israeli casualties, it’s just perfect, so why isn’t anyone talking about it?
There are two downsides to this proposal: it does not leave the US in control of the second largest oil reserve in the world, and it doesn’t get Bush out of his immediate domestic problem, which is how to terrify the country into submission while they pursue a domestic agenda that’s extremely harmful to most of the population — which incidentally, is an immediate problem. That’s why they have to invade this winter and not next winter.
Admittedly, [the Iranian invasion is] a totally insane proposal, but it has many merits over the actual proposal (the US invasion). Is Saddam Hussein going to be a bigger threat next winter? Probably not, nobody believes that. The problem with next winter is that it’s in the middle of a presidential campaign. By then you have to have had the victory behind you so that the brave cowboy can be praised for saving us from disaster. So the timing is purely domestic. The long-term goals, everyone has known for years. The people that are running the show in Washington now are all supporters of Saddam Hussein — they supported him right through his worst atrocities.
OB: What would a just policy toward Iraq entail, in your view?
NC: I think that weapons inspectors should go back. There should be enforcement of resolution 687. The US has been trying very hard to prevent weapons inspectors from going back because they want to go to war. Remember what resolution 687 says — parts of it are quoted, but there are other parts that aren’t quoted. The parts that aren’t quoted are quite reasonable — [those unquoted parts] say that disarmament of Iraq should be part of a general program of reduction of armaments and delivery systems throughout the region. That makes very good sense. In fact, 687 should be implemented including the more specific parts about Iraq and the more general parts about the region. The US wants to go in exactly the opposite direction.
OB: The US ambassador to the UN, Mr. Negroponte, has stressed that the US is committed to allowing weapons inspectors to go forward. Addressing the fears of war-weary members of the Security Council, he called the last draft resolution put forth by the US “the best way to achieve the disarmament of Iraq by peaceful means.” What do you think of his assessment?
NC: He knows perfectly well that it’s the worst way. The Bush administration has stated explicitly that they are interpreting the resolution as authorization to go to war. That’s correct and everyone in the Security Council knows that. That undermines the likelihood that Iraq will agree to inspections — that’s pretty obvious.
Conditions have been imposed — which were carefully written into the draft — that the United States at any point can say, “well, you didn’t meet the conditions, we bomb you.” So if at four o’clock in the morning an inspector shows up at a presidential palace and he isn’t given the keys in five minutes, the US can say “OK, you’re in material breach, we therefore bomb tomorrow.” In fact they can say anything they want. This resolution is simply a way for the countries of the world not to have to face the wrath of the United States. They’re terrified of the United States for pretty good reasons.
OB: It seemed initially that there was some resistance on the part of France, Russia and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. Recently they seem to be acquiescing to American demands.
NC: Frankly, they’re not going to stand up to the US. No one is. The entire world, including the countries of the region, including Iran and Kuwait, the main victims of Saddam while he was a US ally, even they don’t want war. They all hate Saddam, they’d love to get rid of him, and they realize as horrible as he is, he can’t hurt anyone outside his reach, which is narrow.
The only people afraid of the mushroom cloud are in the United States, and no one else in the world expects to be victims of Saddam Hussein even though they despise him, obviously, but they want a peaceful resolution. [In regards to the Security Council resolution], probably what went on in the back rooms is that a deal was made on how they can share the resources of the post-war US run regime afterwards, but no one could have expected otherwise.
Which country is going to want to prejudice its relations with the United States over something they know the United States is going to do anyway, particularly when the US has been making clear all along that they don’t need a resolution? In fact, the US has said very explicitly that the UN is only relevant if it grants Washington the same authorization that Congress did, otherwise it is irrelevant.
Everyone in the Security Council knows that, including France, Russia, China, go down the list, if the US is going to do it anyway, there’s no reason to oppose them. This is what is called at the UN the Yemen effect — the Yemen effect has to do with Yemen’s refusal in the Security Council in 1990 to go along with the Gulf War, and they immediately had all aid cut and all sorts of impositions imposed on them by the US — other countries don’t want to live with that.
OB: So then what is the relevance of the Security Council and the UN in world affairs today?
NC: Zero. The US has made it clear that their relevance is zero. In fact they even said so. When you say at high levels, you are relevant if you let us do what we want to do, and you’re irrelevant otherwise; then the answer to your question is that they’re irrelevant. Incidentally, that’s nothing at all new. Go back, for example 30 years, the big issue of the day was the US wars in Indochina. Every country at the UN was basically opposed, except for maybe England and Canada. Did it ever come up? No, there’s no resolution, no discussion. The reason was perfectly plain. Everyone understood that if the issue came up at the United Nations, that’s the end of the United Nations. A year or two ago there was some talk for a very brief period that the criminal court in the former Yugoslavia might investigate NATO war crimes. That was dropped very fast. During that period, an American congressman that was visiting Canada had an interview in the National Post. He was asked what would happen if someone looked into NATO crimes, and his answer was that if that ever happened, the United Nations buildings in New York would be taken apart brick by brick and thrown into the Atlantic Ocean. Metaphorically speaking, that’s basically correct.
Omar Badawi: How do you see military action against Iraq affecting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Representatives of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have said that Israel will wait until the US has dealt with Iraq before pursuing a political track with the Palestinians, and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns’ “road map for peace is simply not on the agenda.”
Noam Chomsky: We don’t know if the road map is on the agenda because we don’t know what it is — in fact, we don’t even know that it exists. There are plans about the Palestinians. The people near the centre of power like Richard Pearle and Douglas Feith, and probably Rumsfeld, have been talking for some years of the reorganization of the Middle East, where they have all kinds of far-reaching plans. Maybe a Hashemite Kingdom will extend to parts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia and, in the course of this rearrangement, the Palestinians will be moved out — maybe not only from the West Bank and Gaza, but even from Israel. Especially if there is any conflict that involves Israel in the least, that is not an unlikely prospect. It is certainly a prospect that is being considered, and in fact it is discussed all over the place in the Israeli press right now. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but it’s certainly being discussed.
A war will be a complete disaster for the Palestinians. Sharon does have a plan for peace. Everyone has a plan for peace. Hitler had a plan for peace. The question is, what kind of peace? Sharon’s peace, which is a little different from the Labour government’s peace, is some degree of autonomy and administration for Palestinian enclaves — which Israel doesn’t want to have to administer — within a broader framework that will be integrated into Israel and which is essentially the same as the Barak government [peace plan].
Sharon’s borders for Israel are much more expansive, but the basic conception is the same, which was expressed very clearly; Barak’s chief negotiator at Camp David in 2000, Shlomo Ben Ami, a former academic kind of on the dovish side, explained in academic work in 1998 that the goal of the Oslo process from the beginning had been to establish a permanent neo-colonial dependency for the Palestinians — something on the order of South African Bantustans. In fact, the security officials in Israel have been playing close attention to South Africa’s solution to the “black problem” 40 years ago. Establish black homelands, black police, black administration that control the population. White South Africans don’t want to bother with that. And you can have some development dependent on white South Africa. That’s a model that has been seriously considered in Israel, it’s discussed very prominently in the Israeli press at high levels, and it was more or less the framework for the Camp David proposal. Sharon’s road map is on that order, except that he wants the Palestinian enclaves to be small.
OB: Is the “war on terrorism” a manifestation of the “Frankenstein syndrome,” meaning that the US is now having to protect itself from enemies that it has created?
NC: That’s happening, but let’s be a little bit clearer. The war on terrorism was declared in 1981, by pretty much the exact same people who redeclared it after Sept. 11, and with the same rhetoric. The war on terrorism has been going on for 20 years. Orwell would tell us that the war on terrorism is in fact a terrorist war. In the first phase in the war on terrorism led by the people in Washington throughout the 1980s, the US carried out massive terrorist atrocities in Central America, the Middle East, Southern Africa, and so on. That was the first phase in the war on terror. The second phase that they redeclared on Sept. 11, happened to be aimed at organizations that you describe. The terrorists are now those recruited, trained, organized, and armed by the CIA and its associates in the 1980s, not to help the Afghans, but for reasons of state, power, the usual kinds. Yes, in around 1990, they turned against the US for reasons they described. This is not anything particularly new. In 1993, related groups came very close to blowing up the World Trade Center. According to the WTC engineers, if they had a little better planning, they would have killed tens of thousands of people. That’s in 1993, not 2001. Those groups happened to be organized by the West.
You can say the same about plenty of others. Take Israel’s main terrorist enemies — Hezbollah and Hamas. Where did they come from? In part, the origins of Hamas lie in Israeli sponsorship of radical Islamist groups to undermine the secular Palestinian leadership. Hezbollah came out of a US-backed Israeli invasion of Lebanon 20 years ago which killed about 20,000 people, and had no defensive purpose whatsoever — it was barely even pretended. It was an attempt to undermine the secular PLO because its efforts at negotiation were becoming difficult to handle. The end result is that it helped create Hezbollah. Incidentally, terrorist acts are just a gift to the most hard-line oppressive elements. An increase in terrorism gives Sharon an opportunity to drive the Palestinians out, it gives the Russians an opportunity to clamp down in Chechnya, and so on throughout the world.
It’s very probable that the same thing is going on in Indonesia now. What was behind the Bali bombing is not yet clear, but chances are it was the Jamat al Islamaya. But where did they come from? They’re part of the effort of the Suharto dictatorship with the backing of the United States, Britain and others, to link up radical Islamists and the Indonesian military to carry out terrorist atrocities against their own populations. In fact, the big massacres in Bali, far worse than this one, were in fact a combination of Islamist groups and the army. Those things happen pretty commonly.
OB: As you said, it seems that a US invasion of Iraq is pretty much inevitable at this point. How much difference can popular resistance still make?
NC: A huge difference. It’s the only thing that can stop it. That’s always been true. What prevented the US from carrying out saturation B-52 bombing of Nicaragua in the 1980s? Popular resistance. It wasn’t strong enough 40 years ago to stop it in South Vietnam, but it did stop the invasion in the 1980s, and now resistance to the war has no historical precedent to my knowledge. I can’t think of another case where there was large scale protest to a war before it started. Nothing like that during the Vietnam years. Protest over the Vietnam War came after four to five years of smashing South Vietnam to dust.
There is unprecedented opposition — US policy analysts are keeping their eyes open to it, and if it grows even more, they’ll be concerned. In fact, some of the high level hawkish arguments against the war is that too much divisiveness will be created inside the US. That’s a concern — even the worst mass murderers worry about that. Hitler worried about that, which is part of the reason why the Germans did not carry out a full national mobilization the way the Allies did. They just didn’t trust their population, which probably set back their war effort. No matter who you are, military dictator, mass murderer, democratic leader, you are going to be concerned about popular opinion.