The Iraq Debate

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Carlo Invernizzi

Oxford Student, February 13, 2003

In the midst of the crowd of journalists who have flocked to hear him, Noam Chomsky is a frail old man in jeans and a white shirt. He moves with uncertain pace and an estranged look. You would never expect passionate political comments and biting accusations to come out of such a gentle complexion. However, as soon as he sits into his chair and looks at the crowd he commands their respect, “These microphones should not be turned towards me, but to the other side. I give you the word.” Thus the interview begins:

Professor Chomsky, concerning US foreign policy and the War on Terror, what is your view on the current situation?

Let me start by making one thing clear: I think we ought to be very cautious about using the phrase ‘War on Terror’. There can’t be a war on terror. That is a logical impossibility. First of all because war is one of the principal means through which terror is perpetuated; and secondly because the USA is one of the leading terrorist states in the world.

Do you think there might be adverse effects from fighting this war?

A war on Iraq could have adverse effects on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world. At present the USA is giving a very dangerous lesson to the world. It is about to attack Iraq, which does not really seem to have such weapons of mass destruction. But when North Korea announced that it would leave the treaty of non-proliferation and build up its arsenal of nuclear weapons, George W. Bush said he would treat this as a diplomatic question. What is everybody around the world going to think? If we don’t have weapons of mass destruction the USA may well attack us. But if we do develop weapons of mass destruction they are never going to take the risk.

How do you judge the position of Europe in the context of the present conflict?

Europe is divided. On one hand the UK, Italy and Spain are in favour of the war. Some European journalists have commented that they are acting as Bush’s poodles. I tend to think that they are more like his attack dogs. We must not forget the size of the contingent that the UK has sent in the Middle East in preparation to this war. On the other hand, however, Germany and France seem to have put up a brave front against the war. In Germany, in particular, the Chancellor Schroeder owes much of his electoral success to the firm anti-war stance he adopted during the electoral campaign. It remains to be seen how long these two will be able to stand out and watch the others share the oil concessions amongst themselves.

And what is the perception of this war within the USA?

Support for the war on Iraq in the USA is thin. One survey conducted by Time magazine in the USA even found that most Americans believe that the USA is currently the greatest threat to world peace. Various prominent institutions throughout the country, including the Chicago city council and the largest university in the USA (that is, the University of Texas), have passed anti-war resolutions.

It is important, therefore, not to demonise the USA as a monolithic front for war. There is a distinction to be made between what public opinion and civil society want on one hand and what the US administration is doing on the other.

The people of the USA are a crucial component in the movement against the war.

Do you really think that this movement can do anything to stop the war?

The probability of success of the anti-war campaign depends crucially on the base of its popular support… Let’s make a comparison with other anti-war campaigns in the past: compared with the Vietnam War movement… The war in Vietnam started in 1962, publicly, with a public attack on South Vietnam – airforce, chemical warfare, concentration camps, the whole business. No protest… the protest that did build up four or five years later was mostly about the bombing of the North, which was terrible, but was a sideshow. The main attack was against South Vietnam and there was never any serious protest against that.

Here you’ve got massive protest before war’s even started. It’s just phenomenal.

Of course I am not sure whether we will actually be able to stop the war – the timing is really short. But we can make it costly, and that is important. Even if we don’t succeed in stopping the war it is important that the warmongers know it will be costly for them so that perhaps we may succeed in stopping the next one.

Foulath Hadir has headed the diplomatic mission for Oman in London and believes the impending war will be beneficial to his country, Iraq. Emma Farge speaks exclusively to him.

When Foulath Hadid, a Baghdad-born postgraduate student at St. Anthony’s, was invited to speak at a dinner at St. Edmund Hall two weeks ago, those who attended expected him to condemn the almost inevitable invasion of Iraq. Presumably, the altruism and concern for civilian suffering felt by the student body would be much deeper in the breast of an Iraqi speaking about the fate of his own people, but for Mr. Hadid, the question has gone beyond the moral debate; he sees the war as inevitable.

‘America is going to go in there whatever the reasons. I would like for it not to happen but when they succeed it’s going to be a win-win for the Iraqis. We need to elevate the question to look at how the people can benefit from this move.’

However, according to some, most notably the Stop the War coalition, U.S. troops will carry the burden of hypocrisy and guilt along with their rucksacks.
Hadid backs up Bush’s claims that his country’s ‘democratic crusade’ in the past has met communists, dictators and recently terrorists and chased them all to the same ‘unmarked grave of discarded lies’. In some ways this crusade, like any crusade, is reductive and shrinks huge political/moral issues into rigid binarisms of black/white, right/wrong. But this does not overshadow the fact that America has been good at it. Consistently good Hadid argues. He calls America the ‘least evil empire that has ever existed’. He said, ‘I’d rather have Americans there than any one else – they have a democratic society. In Germany they left behind an edifice for democracy and liberal capitalism.’

Mr. Hadid quoted Newsweek at me. “Bernard Lewis’s article last month clearly printed, ‘Iraq has never had an experience of democracy'”. ‘No words are more wrong’ claims Mr. Hadid whose father, Mohammad Hadid, was leader of the National Democratic Party in Iraq, and whose memoirs he is now editing in Oxford. He admits that the country’s experience of democracy since 1921 was splintered by violent revolutions but stresses that democracy, though dormant, is still retained in the living memories of citizens today. ‘It is not impossible that Iraq, like Germany, could become the pillar of democracy in the Middle East. It’s receptive to democracy. It would not happen without American occupation – America has to go and sit there for ten years. But I really think that someone has to balance the pragmatic aspect of this war with the country’s history.’

So what are the pragmatics of the war? Mr. Hadid stressed that Iraq is much weaker than it was in 1991 and experiencing ‘socio-economic decay’, troops are less loyal, opposition exists and civilians are fed up with dictatorial rule. “I think that it will be a clear sail for the Americans. They will encounter zero resistance and the casualties are going to be very low. Of course there is going to be a loss of life and nobody can tell you figures, but I personally think that it would be an acceptable loss. Saturday’s Guardian featured a front-page article on Private Abass Shomail who deserted the Iraqi army and commented poignantly, ‘I haven’t heard of Tony Blair. But if George Bush wants to give us freedom then we will welcome it.”

“Far from being negative about it (the war) in fact I’m very positive.” Foulath Hadid speaks not as an agent of America, but as a learned man, a man whose history and fortunes are entangled with those of the Iraqi peoples, and whose hopes he shares for democracy and long lasting peace in the region. Maybe we should take a leaf out of Foulath’s book and walk in the boots of the Iraqi’s too.