On the Occupation of Iraq, the Trial of Saddam and the US Election

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Matthew Tempest

The Guardian, March 16, 2004

There’s a lot of focus on the American death toll but personally I think that’s partly propaganda exaggeration. Polls have demonstrated time and time again that Americans are willing to accept a high death toll – although they don’t like it, they’re willing to accept it – if they think it’s a just cause.

There’s never been anything like the so-called Vietnam Syndrome: it’s mostly a fabrication. And in this case too if they thought it was a just cause, the 500 or so deaths would be mourned, but not considered a dominant reason for not continuing. No, the problem is the justice of the cause.

Right after the war, by April, polls demonstrated pretty clearly that Americans thought the United Nations, not the United States, ought to have prime responsibility for reconstruction, political and economic, in the post-war period. There’s little support for the government’s efforts to maintain what amounts to a powerful, permanent, military and diplomatic presence in Iraq.

In fact, it is little discussed, probably for that reason. Not very many people are aware of the fact that the US is planning to construct what will be the world’s largest embassy in Iraq, with maybe 3,000 people. The military plans to maintain permanent bases and a substantial US military presence as long as they want it. The facts are reported, but marginally. Most people don’t know about it. The orders to open the Iraqi economy up to foreign takeover are again known to people who pay close attention, but not to the general population.

The general population offers little support for the long-term effort to ensure that Iraq remains a client state with only nominal sovereignty and a base for other US actions in the region. Those commitments have only a very shallow popular support and that’s more of a reason for the objections, the uneasiness about policy, than the number of casualties.

The trial [of Saddam Hussein] ought to be under some kind of international auspices that have some degree of credibility, so not something which is obviously victor’s justice, which, no matter how much of a monster one is, doesn’t carry credibility.

So first of all there’s a matter of form, but also there’s a matter of content. The trial should bring to the bar of justice his associates, those who gave decisive and substantial support for him right through his worst atrocities, long after the war with Iran. Again in 1991 when he crushed the rebellions viciously – the rebellions that might well have overthrown him. All of those people should be brought to justice. They’re not all equally culpable but they were all critically involved – that includes European countries right through the 80s, including Russia and France, Germany and others, it includes, crucially, the United States and Britain all the way through, including 1991.

They should also bring to justice those who were responsible for the murderous sanction regime which surely led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and devastated the society so completely that they could not carry out what has happened elsewhere, where the US and Britain supported comparable monsters – namely, they were overthrown from within.

It seems not unlikely that the same might have happened in Iraq had the society not been devastated and had people not been compelled by the sanctions to rely on the tyrant for mere survival. Actually there’s even more evidence of that coming out today as it’s been revealed in the Kay investigation and others how fragile the hold on power was at the end.

So anyone who contributed to Saddam Hussein’s atrocities to whatever they degree they did, they’re culpable as well and in some fashion an honest trial should deal with that.

On the US election

Kerry is sometimes described as Bush-lite, which is not inaccurate, and in general the political spectrum is pretty narrow in the United States, and elections are mostly bought, as the population knows.

But despite the limited differences both domestically and internationally, there are differences. And in this system of immense power, small differences can translate into large outcomes.

My feeling is pretty much the way it was in the year 2000. I admire Ralph Nader and Denis Kucinich very much, and insofar as they bring up issues and carry out an educational and organisational function – that’s important, and fine, and I support it.

However, when it comes to the choice between the two factions of the business party, it does sometimes, in this case as in 2000, make a difference. A fraction.

That’s not only true for international affairs, it’s maybe even more dramatically true domestically. The people around Bush are very deeply committed to dismantling the achievements of popular struggle through the past century. The prospect of a government which serves popular interests is being dismantled here. It’s an administration that works, that is devoted, to a narrow sector of wealth and power, no matter what the cost to the general population. And that could be extremely dangerous in the not very long run.

You could see it clearly in the way they dealt with, what is by common agreement, the major domestic economic problem coming along, namely the exploding health care costs. They’re traceable to the fact that the US has a highly inefficient healthcare system – far higher expenditure than other comparable countries, and not particularly good outcomes. Rather poor, in fact. And it’s because it’s privatised.

So they passed a huge prescription drug bill, which is primarily a gift to the pharmaceutical corporations and insurance companies. It’s a huge taxpayer subsidy. They’re already wealthy beyond dreams of avarice. And that’s their constituency. And as that continues, with significant domestic problems ahead, for the general population it’s extremely harmful.

Again there isn’t a great difference, so for maybe 90% of the population over the past 20 years, real income has either stagnated or declined, while for the top few percent, it’s just exploded astronomically. But there are differences and the present group in power is particularly cruel and savage in this respect.