Noam Chomsky on the Anti War Movement

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Matthew Tempest

The Guardian, February 4, 2003

Noam Chomsky: The [peace] demonstrations were another indication of a quite remarkable phenomenon. There is around the world and in the United States opposition to the coming war that is at a level that is completely unprecedented in US or European history both in scope and the parts of the population it draws on.

There’s never been a time that I can think of when there’s been such massive opposition to a war before it was even started. And the closer you get to the region, the higher the opposition appears to be. In Turkey, polls indicated close to 90% opposition, in Europe it’s quite substantial, and in the United States the figures you see in polls, however, are quite misleading because there’s another factor that isn’t considered that differentiates the United States from the rest of the world. This is the only country where Saddam Hussein is not only reviled and despised but also feared, so since September polls have shown that something like 60-70% of the population literally think that Saddam Hussein is an imminent threat to their survival.

Now there’s no objective reason why the US should be more frightened of Saddam than say the Kuwaitis, but there is a reason – namely that since September there’s been a drumbeat of propaganda trying to bludgeon people into the belief that not only is Saddam a terrible person but in fact he’s going to come after us tomorrow unless we stop him today. And that reaches people. So if you want to understand the actual opposition to the war in the US you have to extract that factor. The factor of completely irrational fear created by massive propaganda, and if you did I think you’d find it’s much like everywhere else.

What is not pointed out in the press coverage is that there is simply no precedent, or anything like a precedent, for this kind of public opposition to a war. And it extends itself far more broadly, it’s not just opposition to war it’s a lack of faith in the leaderships. You may have seen a study released by the world economic forum a couple of days ago which estimated trust in leaders, and the lowest was in leaders of the United States. Trusted by little over quarter of the population, and I think that reflects concerns over the adventurism and violence and the threats that are perceived in the actions and plans of the current administration.

These are things that ought to be central. Even in the United States there is overwhelming opposition to the war and that corresponding decline in trust in the leadership that is driving the war. This has been developing for some time but it is now reaching an unusual state, and, just to get back to the demonstrations over the weekend, that’s never happened before. If you compare it with the Vietnam war, the current stage of the war with Iraq is approximately like that of 1961 – that is, before the war actually was launched, as it was in 1962 with the US bombing of South Vietnam and driving millions of people into concentration camps and chemical warfare and so on, but there was no protest. In fact, so little protest that few people even remember.

The protests didn’t begin to develop until several years later when large parts of south Vietnam were being subjected to saturation bombing by B-52s, hundreds of thousands of troops where there, hundreds of thousands had been killed, and then even after that, when the protests finally did develop in the US and Europe it was mostly focused on a side-issue – the bombing of north Vietnam which was undoubtedly a crime, it was far more intense in the south which was always the US target, and that’s continued.

It’s also, incidentally, recognised by the government. So when any administration comes into office the first thing it does is have a worldwide intelligence assessment – “What’s the state of the world?” – provided by the intelligence services. These are secret and you learn about them 30 or 40 years later when they’re declassified. When the first Bush administration came in 1989 parts of their intelligence assessment were leaked, and they’re very revealing about what happened in the subsequent 10 years about precisely these questions.

The parts that were leaked said that it was about military confrontations with much weaker enemies, recognising they were the only kind we were going to be willing to face, or even exist. So in confrontations with much weaker enemies the United States must win “decisively and rapidly” because otherwise popular support will erode, because it’s understood to be very thin. Not like the 1960s when the government could fight a long, brutal war for years and years practically destroying a country without any protest. Not now. Now they have to win. They have to terrify the population to feel there’s some enormous threat to their existence and carry out a mircaculous, decisive and rapid victory over this enormous foe and march on to the next one.

Remember the people now running the show in Washington are mostly recycled Reaganites, essentially reliving the script of the 1980s – that’s an apt analogy. And in the 1980s they were imposing domestic programmes which were quite harmful to the general population and which were unpopular. People opposed most of their domestic programmes. And the way they succeeded in ramming it through was by repeatedly keeping the population in a state of panic.

So one year it was an airbase in Grenada which the Russians were going to use to bomb the United States. It sounds ludicrous but that was the propaganda lie and it worked.

Nicaragua was “two days’ marching time from Texas” – a dagger pointed at the heart of Texas, to borrow Hitler’s phrase. Again, you’d think the people would collapse with laughter. But they didn’t. That was continually brought up to frighten us – Nicargua might conquer us on it’s way to conquer the hemisphere. A national emergency was called because of the threat posed to national security by Nicargua. Libyan hitmen were wandering the streets of Washington to assassinate our leader – hispanic narco-terrorists. One thing after another was conjured up to keep the population in a state of constant fear while they carried out their major terrorist wars.

Remember, the same people declared a war on terror in 1981 that was going to be the centrepiece of US foreign policy focused primarily on central America, and they carried out a war on terror in central America where they ended up killing about 200,000 people, leaving four countries devastated. Since 1990, when the US took them over again, they’ve declined still further into deep poverty. Now they’re doing the same thing for the same purposes – they are carrying out domestic programmes to which the population is strongly opposed because they’re being harmed by them.

But the international adventurism, the conjuring up of enemies that are about to destroy us, that’s second nature, very familiar. They didn’t invent it, others have done the same thing, others have done it in history but they became masters of this art and are now doing it again.

I don’t want to suggest that they have no reasons for wanting to take over Iraq. Of course they do – long-standing reasons that everyone knows. Controlling Iraq will put the US in a very powerful position to extend it domination of the major energy resources of the world. That’s not a small point.

But look at the specific timing. It’s rather striking that the propaganda drumbeat began in September – what happened in September? Well, it’s when the Congressional campaign began and it was certain that the Republicans were not going to win it by allowing social and economic issues to dominate. They would have been smashed. They had to do exactly what they did in the ’80s. Replace them by security issues and in the case of a threat to security people tend to rally around the president – a strong figure who’ll protect us from horrible dangers.

The more likely direction this will take [after a war with Iraq] will be Iran, and possibly Syria. North Korea is a different case. What they are demonstrating to the world with great clarity is that if you want to deter US aggression you better have weapons of mass destruction [WMD], or else a credible threat of terror. There’s nothing else that will deter them – they can’t be deterred by conventional forces. That’s a terrible lesson to teach, but it’s exactly what’s being taught.

For years, experts in the mainstream have been pointing out that the US is causing weapons proliferation by its adventures since others cannot protect themselves except by WMD or the threat of terror. Kenneth Waltz is one who recently pointed this out. But years ago, even before the Bush administration, leading commentators like Samuel Huntington in Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal, were pointing out that the United States is following a dangerous course. He was talking about the Clinton administration but he pointed out that, for much of the world, the US is now regarded as a rogue state and the leading threat to their existence. In fact one of the striking things about the opposition to the war now, again unprecedented, is how broadly it extends across the political spectrum, so the two major foreign policy journals, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy have just in their recent issues run very critical articles by distinguished mainstream figures opposing the resort to war in this case.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences rarely takes a position on controversial current issues has just published a long monogram on this issue by its committee on international security giving as sympathetic as possible an account of the Bush administration position then simply dismantling it line by line on very narrow grounds – much narrower than I would prefer – but nevertheless successfully.

[There is] just a lot of fear and concern about this adventurism, what one analyst called “sillier armchair fantasies”. My concern is more “What’s it going to do to the people of Iraq” and “What’s it going to do to the region?” but these concerns are “What’s it going to do to us?”

Matthew Tempest: Will the propaganda rebound if democracy is not established in Iraq after “liberation”?

NC: You’re right to call it propaganda. If this is a war aim, why don’t they say so? Why are they lying to the rest of the world? What is the point of having the UN inspectors? According to this propaganda, everything we are saying in public is pure farce – we don’t care about the weapons of mass destruction, we don’t care about disarmament, we have another goal in mind, which we’re not telling you, and that is, all of a sudden, we’re going to bring democracy by war. Well, if that’s the goal, let’s stop lying about it and put an end to the whole farce of inspections and everything else and just say now we’re on a crusade to bring democracies to countries that are suffering under miserable leadership. Actually that is a traditional crusade, that’s what lies behind the horrors of colonial wars and their modern equivalents, and we have a very long rich record to show just how that worked out. It’s not something new in history.

In this particular case you can’t predict what will happen once a war starts. In the worst case it might be what the intelligence agencies and the aid agencies are predicting – namely an increase in terror as deterence or revenge, and for the people of Iraq, who are barely on the edge of survival, it could be the humanitarian catastrophe of which the aid agencies and the UN have been warning.

On the other hand, it’s possible it could be what the hawks in Washington hope – a quick victory, no fighting to speak of, impose a new regime, give it a democratic façade, make sure the US has big military bases there, and effectively controls the oil.

The chances that they will allow anything approximating real democracy are pretty slight. There’s major problems in the way of that – problems that motivated Bush No 1 to oppose the rebellions in 1991 that could have overthrown Saddam Hussein. After all, he could have been overthrown then if the US had not authorised Saddam to crush the rebellions.

One major problem is that roughly 60% of the population is Shi’ite. If there’s any form of democratic government, they’re going to have a say, in fact a majority say, in what the government is. Well they are not pro-Iranian but the chances are that a Shi’ite majority would join the rest of the region in trying to improve relations with Iran and reduce the levels of tension generally in the region by re-integrating Iran within it. There have been moves in that direction among the Arab states and Shi’ite majority in Iraq is likely to do that. That’s the last thing the US wants. Iran is its next target.

It doesn’t want improved relations. Furthermore if the Shi’ite majority gets for the first time a real voice in the government, the Kurdish minority will want something similar. And they will want a realisation of their quite just demands for a degree of autonomy in the northern regions. Well Turkey is not going to tolerate that. Turkey already has thousands of troops in Northern Iraq basically to prevent any such development. If there’ s move towards Kirkuk, which they regard as their capital city, Turkey will move to block it, the US will surely back them, just as the United States has strongly supported Turkey in its massive atrocities against the Kurds in the 1990s in the south-eastern regions. What you’re going to be left with is either a military dictatorship with some kind of democratic façade, like maybe a parliament that votes while the military runs it behind the scenes – it’s not unfamiliar – or else putting power back into the hands of something like the Sunni minority which has been running it in the past.

Nobody can predict any of this. What happens when you start a war is unknown. The CIA can’t predict it, Rumsfeld can’t predict it, nobody can. It could be anywhere over this range. That’s why sane people refrain from the use of violence unless there are overwhelming reasons to undertake it – the dangers are simply far too great. However it’s striking that neither Bush nor Blair present anything like this as their war aim. Have they gone to the security council and said let’s have a resolution for the use of force to bring democracy to Iraq? Of course not. Because they know they’d be laughed at.

Bush and his administration were telling the security council back in November very openly and directly that the UN will be “relevant” if it grants us the authority to do what we want, to use force when we want, and if the UN does not grant us that authority it will be irrelevant. It couldn’t be clearer.

They said we already have the authority to do anything we want, you can come along and endorse that authorisation or else you’re irrelevant. There could not have been a more clear and explicit way of informing the world that we don’t care what you think, we’ll do what we want. That’s one of the primary reasons why US leaders’ authority collapsing in the World Economic Forum poll.

Other countries will presumably go along with the US war – but out of fear.