On the War in Iraq

Noam Chomsky interviewed by David McNeill

ZNet, January 31, 2005

David McNeill: Can you give me your views on the current war in Iraq. As you know, many critics of the war are now saying the invasion was a historic mistake, on a par with the US invasion of Vietnam.

Noam Chomsky: Well, I don’t think that Vietnam was a mistake; I think it was a success. This is somewhere where I disagree with just about everyone, including the left, right, friends and so on.

To determine whether it was a failure you have to first look at what the goals were. In the case of Indo-china, the US is a very free country; we have an incomparably rich documentary record of internal planning, much richer than any other country that I know of. So we can discover what the goals were. In fact it is clear by around 1970, certainly by the time the Pentagon Papers came out, the primary concern was the one that shows up in virtually all intervention: Guatemala, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Chile, just about everywhere you look at. The concern is independent nationalism which is unacceptable in itself because it extricates some part of the world that the US wants to dominate. And it has an extra danger if it is likely to be successful in terms that are likely to be meaningful to others who are suffering from the same conditions.

So in the former colonial world, the Third World and the south, the problem was what planners called the rotten apple that might spoil the barrel or a virus that might infect others. The virus is independent nationalism that seems as though it may be successful in terms that are meaningful to others that are suffering similar problems. That’s a theme that goes through the entire documentary record and it was a concern in Vietnam. So the US, during the late 1940s, hadn’t really decided whether to support the French in their re-conquest of the former colony or to take the path that they did in Indonesia in 1948 and support the independence movement against the Dutch. But the issue was: suppose Vietnam turns out to be an independence movement that is out of control. They knew it was not run by the Russians and the Chinese: that was for public show. It was clearly an independent nationalist movement which could turn out to be successful. So in the 1950s they became increasingly concerned that North Vietnam was developing in ways that could be meaningful for others in the region. A fully independent Vietnam could truly dominate Indochina, which could become an independent nationalist force, a rotten apple which would affect others: Thailand, Malaya, which was a big problem at the time, possibly Indonesia. They were deeply concerned about Indonesian nationalism under Sukarno, which was going off on its own independent course and was a pillar of the non-aligned movement. If this infection of independent nationalism spread the concern was it might ultimately lead to Japan — the “superdomino,” as Asia historian John Dower called it. Not that Japan would be affected by it but that Japan would be induced to, as they put it, accommodate to independent Asian nationalism in SE Asia, maybe spreading from Vietnam, Indonesia, China, which was by then a huge rotten apple. And if Japan were to accommodate to Asian independent nationalism and offer itself as the technological and commercial and financial and industrial center it would effectively have won the Second World War. The Second World War was fought in the Pacific phase to prevent Japan from establishing a new order in Asia in which it would be the center. And it would be an independent force in world affairs. Well in the 1950s the US was not prepared to lose the Second World War and so it took a nuanced position. It first supported Sukarno then quickly turned against him. In 1958, US President [Dwight] Eisenhower was supporting the break up of Indonesia. It quickly in 1950 decided to support the French in Vietnam. And it just goes on from there. You can go through the steps, but effectively this is what happened.

By around 1960 the US recognized that it could not maintain a client state in Vietnam. The client state, which had already killed maybe 60,000 people, had engendered resistance which it could not control. So in 1962 Kennedy simply invaded the country outright. That’s when US bombing started, chemical warfare, attempts to drive people into concentration camps and so on, and from then on it just escalated. By 1967 South Vietnam was practically destroyed. Bernard Fall, who is a very respected and rather hawkish military analyst and Vietnam specialist, was writing by 1967 that he wondered whether Vietnam could survive as a historic and cultural entity under the assault of the biggest military machine of all time. There was very little protest at that time. The US and England and the rest were just content to see Vietnam destroyed. That was much worse than anything happening in Iraq. It looked at that point as if they would conquer Vietnam. The Tet Offensive [a major national offensive by anti-US Vietnamese forces in early 1968] made it clear it was going to be a long war. At that point the business world turned against the war and decided this is just not worth it. They said we have already achieved the main objectives and Vietnam is not going to undergo successful independent development. It will be lucky if it survives. So it is pointless; why waste the money on it. The main goal had been achieved by the early seventies.

You start reading in the Far Eastern Economic Review that this was a pointless enterprise, you guys have basically won so just go home and quit. Why ruin your economy, spoil your situation in the world scene and so on. And they assumed that now that it is destroyed it will sooner or later be absorbed into our system, which is in fact what happened. Well that’s a partial victory not a defeat. The defeat was that they didn’t achieve their maximal goal which was to turn all of Indochina into something like Guatemala or the Philippines, and that they didn’t achieve, but they did achieve their main goal.

Now Iraq is nothing like that. There’s no point in destroying Iraq. Iraq is worth owning, unlike Vietnam. I mean Eisenhower did contrive stories about the rubber and the tin and so forth but that was mostly for propaganda purposes. Vietnamese resources were not of that much significance. Iraq is totally different. It is the last corner of the world in which there are massive petroleum resources pretty much unexplored, maybe the largest in the world or close to it. Now they are very easy to gain access to. The profits from that must flow primarily to the right pockets, that is, US and secondarily UK energy corporations. And controlling that resource puts the US in a very powerful position, even more powerful than today, to exert influence over the world.

I mean, serious planners are well aware of this. [Former National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew] Brzezinski recently pointed out that victory and control in Iraq would give the US what he called critical leverage over Asian and European economies, so the US will have its hand on the spigot. I mean it already does to a substantial extent but this will be much greater. In fact, back in the 1940s the Middle East was described as a stupendous source of strategic power, the most strategically important area in the world, and the US remained an oil exporter into the 1970s but still pursued the same policies. You have got to control that massive resource, it is a source of world control. If the US or UK were to shift to renewable energy it would still stick to the same policies. It doesn’t really need…I mean it does use the oil but it has other sources and the oil goes on the market anyway so it doesn’t matter. But control over it does matter. And the profit from it also matters, and having bases there that allow you to organize the region in your own interests, of course that matters. So this is nothing like Vietnam. It is totally different. In Vietnam the US basically won its major goals.

What about Iraq? Well I must say it is a very surprising result what has happened. It should have been one of the easier military occupations in history. First of all I thought the war itself would be over in two days and then that the occupation would immediately succeed.


Well, first of all the country was destroyed; it was known to be the weakest country in the region; the US never would have invaded otherwise. That’s why nobody feared it outside the United States. The people who most despised Saddam Hussein like Iran and Kuwait weren’t afraid of him. They knew it is the weakest country in the region, held together with scotch tape. The sanctions had killed hundreds of thousands of people and compelled the people to rely on Saddam for survival otherwise they probably would have overthrown him. He probably would have gone the same way as [former Romanian dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu, Suharto, [former Congo dictator Sese Seki] Mobutu and a whole series of other gangsters, many quite comparable to him.

But in this case, as [former UN humanitarian coordinators for Iraq] Denis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck kept pointing out, the population is compelled to rely on him for survival so he is strengthened, the population is devastated, the country has no military force. I mean the country is obviously going to fall apart as soon as you push it. So it looked like a fairly easy invasion and then the invasion gets rid of two vicious regimes: Saddam Hussein and the sanctions which were destroying the country. I mean, how could it fail? And any resistance is going to have no outside support, a trickle but nothing significant. And the US has such enormous resources it should be able to easily reconstruct the destruction of the last 15 years or so. Iraq had been a very advanced society by Third World standards prior to the first Gulf war. I mean it looked as if it should maybe have been one of the easiest military occupations history, but in fact it is proving harder than the German occupation of Europe in the Second World War. I mean the Nazis didn’t have this much trouble in Europe. They didn’t run the occupied countries. They were run by others. Vichy France was run by the French, the political structure was French, the political and administrative structure was French, the security forces were French. It was the same right throughout occupied Europe. The Germans were in the background if anything gets out of control. The partisans were significant but the partisans would have been completely crushed if they hadn’t had outside support. It was the same with the Russians in Eastern Europe. The Russians had very few problems running Eastern Europe. They ran it with local political authority, local bureaucrats, local security forces. Occasionally they had to move in, in Berlin, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, but not very often. And there were again hostile forces surrounding them. In this case there is nothing, no opposition. Every possible reason for it to succeed, but somehow they have managed to turn it into an unbelievable catastrophe. [London Independent Middle-east correspondent] Bob Fisk has been describing it all along. About a year ago I happened to meet a friend who I can’t identity but who is a high official in one of the major relief organizations. He has experience all over the world and has worked in the most horrible places. His description of Iraq was that he had simply never seen such a combination of arrogance, ignorance and incompetence. They somehow succeeded in creating an opposition, one which is spreading. Now at first the US intended to run it like a pure colony. I mean the Bremer laws [named after former US Viceroy in Iraq Paul Bremer] that were passed apart from being illegal were just grotesque. I mean they opened up the whole economy to foreign takeover. It was a joke: Iraqi businesses would not have been able to survive. Nothing. Iraq has a long history of militancy and labor organization but the US forces just destroyed the unions; smashed the offices, arrested the leaders, blacked them out. They were not even going to allow the pretence of political purposes. But they have been compelled by Iraqi resistance, and here I don’t mean the people throwing bombs. I mean the people for whom Sistani [Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric] is kind of a symbol and who simply refused to accept the demands of the occupation authorities. They’ve been compelled step by step to back off and to allow some kinds of elections which they certainly didn’t want and to back away from the most extreme measures.

I don’t see any possibility of Britain and the US allowing a sovereign independent Iraq, that’s almost inconceivable. If you think what its policies would be likely to be. But there has been an astonishing failure to achieve what was pretty clearly the original war aim: to make sure that Iraqis don’t rule Iraq. If they’d wanted Iraqis to rule Iraq they would not have supported [former Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein when he crushed the Shiite rebellion in 1991 and they would not have imposed the kinds of sanctions that made it impossible to send him the same way as other tyrants. But it looks as if that goal might not be attainable, amazingly. I don’t think it is obvious any more. The constellation of forces is such that it should have been easy. But I still find it hard to imagine that the US cannot crush the armed resistance, which has limited internal support and almost no external support. It takes real genius to be incapable of crushing such weak opposition.

It is difficult though to defeat these kinds of guerrilla struggles though, isn’t it, as the UK has found in NI [Northern Ireland]?

Well, first of all the IRA was being supported from abroad, right here in Boston for example. Churches in New England were collecting money for the IRA and the FBI didn’t interfere with them. They weren’t doing what they demanded Saudi Arabia do. And the Irish population outside Ireland is far greater than inside Ireland so they had plenty of sympathetic supporters. I mean nobody was supporting blowing up trains and killing people but there was a reservoir of support in NI itself and furthermore it wasn’t that hard to stop the terror. I mean, Britain did have NI under control and as soon as Britain had the intelligence to pay attention to the grievances, instead of just responding with more violence, there was real progress. NI is not heaven today but West Belfast is not the place it was 10 years ago. The immediate grievances could be alleviated. My guess is the MIT electrical engineering department could have had the energy system running in Iraq by now. It’s hard to imagine that degree of incompetence and failure and it is partly because of the way they are treating people. They have been treating people in such a way that engenders resistance and hatred and fear. But I still find it hard to imagine that they can’t crush guerrilla-style resistance. Whether they will be able to impose the kind of rule they want is not so clear. Iraqis have been very steadfast in refusing to accept external domination. It is not unfamiliar to them. Britain granted them nominal independence and what was called an independent government with a nice looking constitution and so on, but Britain ruled behind the scenes. It was no big secret. And certainly Iraqis who are familiar with that don’t want to relive that experience. Whether the US can impose it or not, I don’t know. On the other hand it is very hard to imagine that the US would allow an independent, sovereign Iraq. I mean, just ask what its policies would be like. It will have a Shiite majority. Probably as a first step it will try to reconstitute relations with Iran. It’s not that they are pro- [Ayatullah Ruhollah] Khomeini, they’ll want to be independent. But it’s a natural relationship and in fact even under Saddam they were beginning to restore relations with Iran. It is entirely possible that an independent Iraq under Shiite leadership would be a virus in the sense of US planners. It might instigate some pressures for autonomy in the largely Shiite regions of Saudi Arabia which happens to be where most of the oil is, right on the border. You can project not too far in the future a possible Shiite-dominated region including Iran, Iraq, oil-producing regions of Saudi Arabia which really would monopolize the main sources of the world’s oil. Is the US going to permit that? I mean it is out of the question. Furthermore, an independent Iraq would try to restore its position as a great, perhaps leading power in the Arab world, which is the position you would expect it to maintain as it had that position far back in history, going back to the bible. So it will probably try to restore that, which means it will try to rearm and confront the regional enemy, which is Israel; virtually an offshore US military base by now. It may well develop WMD to counter Israel’s. It is just inconceivable that the US and the UK will permit any of this. Talk about a sovereign, independent, democratic Iraq is a poor joke. The US has already been forced to concede some of the formal mechanisms of democracy which is a good thing, but to concede true democracy and sovereign rights is virtually inconceivable. The US has never allowed that in any country in its own area of domination. Look at Cuba for example, Nicaragua, Haiti, take your choice. As a country moves toward some sort of sovereignty it gets crushed. Britain was exactly the same when it ran most of the world, France too. That’s the way dominant powers work. And Iraq is not Nicaragua…it’s much more important.

Let me ask you about some of the criticism that has come your way from the left since 9/11. You’ve been accused, notably by Christopher Hitchens and by others, including the Independent’s Johann Hari, of making excuses for Islamic fascism and of drawing ‘moral equivalency’ in your discussions of 9/11 and US crimes. How do you respond?

Can they give a source? I don’t care what sort of ranting and tantrums people have. If they refer to something, fine. The phrase moral equivalence is used only by totalitarians. It was invented I think by [Jeane] Kirkpatrick [UN ambassador under Reagan] to try to prevent critical discussion of US foreign policy to use as a barrier to any criticism of the massive atrocities her administration was then beginning to carry out, primarily in Central America. If anyone started to discuss the massacres in Guatemala, and Salvador and Nicaragua they screamed moral equivalence. I mean it’s the kind of thing you might have expected in Stalinist Russia, but we can’t pay attention to it. There is no moral equivalence. We happen to be particularly responsible for our own actions. That is a moral truism. If you want to blame someone else for what they do that’s okay but there is nothing moral about that. Our actions happen to be severe and we can change them. I can’t stop people killing each other in Eastern Congo but I can stop our atrocities. So of course you concentrate on those if you are at all serious. Furthermore, we all understand this when we talk about enemies. Let’s take the Soviet Union. There were plenty of people who criticized US crimes. Were we impressed when Soviet Commissars criticized US crimes? Did we care? We cared about the people who concentrated on Soviet crimes, even if the US crimes at the time happened to be worse. We should pay attention to what we’re responsible for, what we can influence and change. That’s so elementary it is embarrassing to discuss. What about equating 9/11 with US crimes. What does that mean? You can’t even equate 9/11 with what they call the other 9/11 south of the border. In 9/11 1973, in Chile, the president was killed, the oldest democracy in Latin America was destroyed, the official number killed was 3000 people. The actual number is probably double that. In per capita terms in relation to the US that would be about 100,000 people. We’ve just learned that the number of tortured people was in the order of 30,000 or about 700,000 in terms of the US. It set up a brutal, vicious dictatorship which was a virus. It spread throughout much of the rest of Latin America and helped induce a tremendous wave of terror. Operation Condor was carrying out terrorism all over the region and in fact in Europe and the US. That’s pretty serious. How does that compare with September 11, 2001? If you want to count numbers and social consequences it is much worse. But it doesn’t make any sense to compare them. I mean they are each atrocities on their own. And the ones we are concerned with primarily are the ones that we can stop. We were involved in 9/11 1973 and we are involved in the next atrocity that is going to take place in the US.


I mean when Britain and the US invaded Iraq it was with the reasonable expectation that it was going to increase the threat of terror, as in fact it has. This means that they are again contributing to terror of the 9/11 variety which is likely to hit the US, which could be awesome. I mean sooner of later Jihadist style terror and WMD are going to come together and the consequences could be horrendous and they are contributing to that. So if we care about Jihadist-style terror we don’t want to be contributing to it. If fact, what we want to do is diminish the threat, but that is going to take measures like the British finally took in NI. Pay some attention to the grievances. I mean just about every specialist I’ve read and every intelligence agency I know of says the same thing. If you want to deal with this kind of terror you have to have a dual program. The terrorist acts are criminal acts so you treat them that way. You apprehend the guilty, use force if necessary, bring them to a fair trial. That’s the way to deal with criminal acts. But these are a kind of vanguard. They want to appeal to the reservoir of understanding for what they’re doing, even from people who hate and fear them. If they can mobilize that reservoir they win. We can help them mobilize that reservoir by violence or we can reduce it by dealing with legitimate grievances.

Hitchens and others (Johann Hari) are influenced by George Orwell’s response to the war against fascism in the 1930s/40s. They seem to believe there is some sort of civil war going on in Islamic culture between reactionary and moderate elements and it is the duty of the US to intervene there.

I agree, but the way you intervene is not by helping the Jihadists, which is their policy. Take a look at the record. Every resort to violence has just been a gift to the Jihadists, who after all we organized. It’s not my opinion. The best study of Al Qaida that I know of is Jason Burke’s. He just keeps pointing it out step after step. Read Richard Clarke or Israeli intelligence or anyone else. They say respond with violence which hits civilians and you’re just giving a gift to Osama Bin Laden. You’re giving him the propaganda weapon he wants so that he can say: ‘We have to defend Islam against the Western infidels that are trying to destroy it. We’re fighting a war of defense.’ If you want to mobilize that constituency that is the way to intervene. But there is another way to intervene and that is to pay some attention to the legitimate grievances as they did finally in NI. I mean you should deal with them anyway quite apart from terrorism. You undercut the support for terrorism. That’s intervention too. Orwell has precisely zero to do with this, nothing.

What has been the impact of 9/11 on US politics.

9/11 had a complex effect on the US which I don’t think is appreciated abroad. The picture abroad is that it turned everyone into a raving jingoist and that is absolutely not true. It opened people’s minds. This is a very insular society. People in the US don’t know anything about the outside world. They may not know where France is, literally. It’s a huge country, everything has been focused internally. 9/11 made a lot of people think: ‘We’d better figure out what is going on in the world. We’d better figure out what our role is and why things like that are happening. And the result was a huge increase in interest and concern. Huge audiences. I spend probably an hour a night just turning down requests for interviews from all over the place. They’re not necessarily agreeing but they’re thinking about what is going on. This is a very polled society and right before the November elections two of the major polling institutions, Program on International Policy Attitudes in Maryland and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, both published major studies of popular attitudes and they were extremely interesting. What they showed is that the two political parties are far to the right of the population on issue after issue. What’s happened is that the public is far removed from the bipartisan political system and intellectual culture and that is a reflection of changes that have taken place for many years. I was just reading a very interesting review of a book that is coming out on the post-9/11 world and it says that in the US everyone sort of collapsed and turned into a flag-waving maniac. That’s just complete nonsense. Small publishers have been reprinting texts they haven’t released since the 1970s. It had a very complex effect.

E-mail question: What do you make of the various conspiracies that have flourished online since the terror attacks?

On the conspiracy theories about 9/11, I’ll comment, but reluctantly. There are far more important things to be concerned about, and these things can become an awful waste of time.

As for the theories, I don’t think they can be taken very seriously. I think they are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of evidence, and also failure to think through the issues clearly. I really am rushed, so I hope you won’t mind if I just paste in [see below] one of the 100s of letters I’ve written about this, in response to a deluge of queries: it really is an industry. I should say, however, that I never become publicly involved in these matters, if I can help it.

I might perhaps add that all of this reminds me of a 1998 DOD report on declassification decisions. Among other things, it suggested that information about the JFK assassination should be released now and then as a “diversion,” as “distraction material,” which could keep people busy on wild goose chases so they wouldn’t investigate the serious questions. A smart decision on the part of US intelligence. You can find the details in an excellent book by British political scientist Richard Aldrich, The Hidden Hand (p. 7), the best study by far of British intelligence (with a lot about US intelligence too, for one reason, because the British were of course spying on the Americans, just as conversely).

[Comment pasted in by Noam Chomsky from an e-mail response to a query:]

There’s by now a small industry on the thesis that the administration had something to do with 9-11. I’ve looked at some of it, and have often been asked. There’s a weak thesis that is possible though extremely unlikely in my opinion, and a strong thesis that is close to inconceivable. The weak thesis is that they knew about it and didn’t try to stop it. The strong thesis is that they were actually involved. The evidence for either thesis is, in my opinion, based on a failure to understand properly what evidence is. Even in controlled scientific experiments one finds all sorts of unexplained phenomena, strange coincidences, loose ends, apparent contradictions, etc. Read the letters in technical science journals and you’ll find plenty of samples. In real world situations, chaos is overwhelming, and these will mount to the sky. That aside, they’d have had to be quite mad to try anything like that. It would have had to involve a large number of people, something would be very likely to leak, pretty quickly, they’d all be lined up before firing squads and the Republican Party would be dead forever. That would have happened whether the plan succeeded or not, and success was at best a long shot; it would have been extremely hard to predict what would happen.

One part of the standard story is that they exploited the tragedy for their own purposes, which is certainly true, and was completely predictable; I pointed out in my first interviews a few hours later that every power system in the world would do that, including Washington, as they all did — one of the easiest predictions. So that shows nothing.