Just War Theory

Noam Chomsky

U.S. Military Academy, West Point, April 20, 2006

Transcription courtesy of Mariko Sakurai, corrected and improved by Scott Senn.

(Please note: this is a volunteer transcript of an original audio or video source. It has not been verified by chomsky.info or Noam Chomsky for accuracy. It is recommended that the original source be employed when possible for purposes of citation.)

Thanks. I think a useful place to start might be with a recent academic study, by an Oxford professor, of “traditions of war”, which contrasts two leading paradigms in the study of just war: what the author calls the “Grotian” and “republican” interpretations [Karma Nabulsi, Traditions of War]. The first paradigm traces back to Hugo Grotius, famed 17th century humanist, who founded the dominant framework of thinking on laws of war. Within this paradigm, law war is an act of states and just war proposals are a means to humanize and to introduce humanity in warfare. That’s one tradition. The contrasting “republican” paradigm traces back to Rousseau and the uprising against monarchy and feudalism in the late 18th century including the American Revolution. This paradigm blends war with justice, with liberty, equality, individual and community rights, whatever else may fall within our concept of justice. Well, these positions are of course idealizations; the real world is more complex. The formal implementation of efforts to introduce humanity into warfare do not simply disregard questions of justice, but they do put them to the margins. They’re not central to the codification of the principles of world order in practice, with the single exception of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has a pretty tattered history. Well, despite real world complexities, the differences between these two approaches to war, I think, deserve attention in considering both the issues that are addressed and those that are ignored. We might ask whether that itself is just.

There are at least three major sources of insight into the concepts of just war. The first is the scholarly literature. The second is the underlining notions of human nature that underlie our moral judgments. And the third is the international codifications. So I’d like to say a few words about each of these topics. I think it may help to indicate in advance where I’m heading: In brief, my own conclusions are that the literature merits careful attention, but is ultimately not very instructive about just war; secondly, that the notions of human nature should be at the heart of the discussion, although serious inquiry into this is still in its early stages; and third, that the codifications are — seem to me — sensible, but actions in the real world all too often reinforce the famous maxim of Tacitus that “the strong do as they can, while the weak do as they must” [quoting the imperial Athenians in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War 5.89; elsewhere Chomsky calls this the maxim of Thucydides]. So let’s start with some remarks on some of the current literature on just war.

One of the most recent studies is Michael Walzer’s book Arguing About War, which merits particular attention not only because of the high praise it’s received but also because Walzer is responsible for the — largely responsible for the recent revival of just war theory. The strengths — I think the book reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of just war theory. The strengths are that many of the conclusions seem plausible enough, at least to me, but particularly those conclusions that pretty much reiterate standard codifications. The weakness is that, despite the book’s title “Arguing About War”, it’s very hard to find an argument. You might try that as an experiment. More accurately, while arguments are sometimes detectable, they rely crucially on such premises as “seems to me entirely justified” or “I believe” or “no doubt.” And there is almost no effort to bring in relevant background information and evidence. Walzer gives two paradigm examples in which case he simply asserts that the wars are just, in fact so obviously just that argument is unnecessary. The two examples are Afghanistan and Kosovo. He describes the invasion of Afghanistan as a “triumph of just war theory” [Chapter 1], which stands alongside the bombing of Serbia in 1999 as an uncontroversial case of “just war.” No argument is felt to be necessary though in either case it doesn’t take much effort to think of possible evidence that might bear on the pronouncement that these are triumphs of just war theory. And these are considerations that would certainly be brought up by just war theorists if the responsibility for the military actions lay elsewhere. Well, for lack of time, I’ll skip the illustrations but can come back to them if you like.

To be clear, I’m not asking whether the bombings of Afghanistan and Serbia were right or wrong; maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. I’m asking a different question: namely, what does this just war theory have to say about it? And I think if you look closely you’ll find that the answer is that it has nothing to say about it. We’re left with assertions of the authors, that state violence was justified, uncontroversially so. And any consequences, whether anticipated or not, are entirely “no doubt” the fault of the official enemy.

Well, another recent and also highly regarded inquiry into just war theory is by moral-political philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain. The paradigm of just war, she writes, is the bombing of Afghanistan [Just War Against Terror, pp. 61-62]. And she adds that “nearly everyone with the exception of absolute pacifists” and a few lunatics “agree” that the bombing of Afghanistan was clearly a just war [“A Just War?”, Boston Globe, 6 Oct 2002]. Argument ended. In reality, “nearly everyone” excludes substantial categories of people, the majority of the world’s population, for example, even in Europe, far more so in Latin America, and also leading Afghans who had been fighting the Taliban, including US favorites, and virtually all aid agencies working there. But what’s relevant is that this constitutes the sole argument to establish that the war was just, in fact uncontroversially so. Facts are irrelevant, and no further argument is needed. Well, Elshtain does provide criteria for just war. So we at least have the rudiments of a theory. Four criteria. I’ll read them.

First criterion: the “war must be openly declared or otherwise authorized by a legitimate authority.” Second: It “must begin with the right intentions.” Third: Force is justified if it “protects the innocent from certain harm”, as when a country “has certain knowledge that genocide will commence on a certain date.” Fourth: It “must be a last resort after other possibilities for the redress and defense of the values at stake have been explored.” [Elshtain Just War Against Terror, pp. 57-58]

Well, the first two conditions are vacuous: declaration of war by an aggressor confers no support whatsoever for a claim of just war. And even the worst criminals claim right intentions. The third and fourth conditions sound reasonable, but they have no relevance at all, clearly, to the case of Afghanistan. So, therefore Elshtain’s paradigm example collapses entirely under her own criteria.

Let me add just one word on the classic, modern work, Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, which I believe you’ve been reading. My personal judgment is that his conclusions are generally very reasonable, also pretty much in accord with the conventional reading of the United Nations Charter. But what’s relevant here is that the conclusions, just about invariably, rely crucially on the ubiquitous phrase “it seems to me” and so on. Again, you might test. So, just as an illustration, take what he regards as “the hardest question”, in his words. That is, the British bombing of urban centers in Germany up to the end of the war. Walzer concludes that such bombing (quoting him) “after the immediate threat posed by Hitler’s early victories had passed…was entirely indefensible.” Maybe so, but if you check you’ll find there’s no argument, apart from the statement that “the policy seems cruel.” [Walzer pp. 323-324] Well, I think it does; it seems cruel to me at least. But what does just war theory have to say? Where does it enter into the argument, and why are relevant facts disregarded? There are, after all, relevant facts.

Well, the character of the theory is revealed further when we look at the examples that Walzer gives; he gives about half a dozen examples, which are just listed — no argument or discussion — to show that just war theory applies, leaving in his words “no doubts” [p. 292]. The examples are mostly uncontentious, although one might well ask why some of these examples are chosen but not others. For example, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia is given as a case where there is “no doubt”; but not given is the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which I suppose had about a hundred times as many as casualties, and many more during the 22 years of occupation of southern Lebanon in defiance of Security Council orders. So maybe there’s a reason, maybe there isn’t; but whatever it is, it’s not given. That’s all examples, except one. The last example of a case where just war theory applies leaving “no doubt” is the Egyptian challenge to Israel in 1967. That’s the sole example in a long period covered where just war theory allegedly demonstrates that a preemptive strike was just beyond all doubt. Well, maybe the selection of cases and the conclusions are correct, maybe they’re not, but what’s relevant here is that just war theory plays little if any role in the argument, which reduces pretty much to declarations of personal preference.

Well, I won’t go on, but these are to my knowledge fairly representative selections from the most highly regarded literature and I think it’s fair to conclude more generally that we learn very little about just war from just war theory, although we do learn something about the prevailing intellectual moral climate in which the theory is presented and honored.

Well, let’s turn to the second source of potential insight — the second source of potential insight into just war theory: that is, our intuitive moral judgments. Well, here, we are turning to what was traditionally called “moral philosophy”. I think it’s more aptly described as “moral psychology” in modern terms; that’s after the divorce of science and philosophy in the mid-19th century. A century before that, David Hume had done his classic work on what he called “the springs and origins” of human nature. Hume recognized that knowledge and belief are grounded in what he called a “species of natural instincts,” part of our inherent mental nature [An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, sect. 5 part 1]. He recognized also that something similar must be true in the domain of moral judgment. His reason was that our moral judgments are unbounded in scope: we’re constantly applying them in systematic ways to new circumstances in a manner that’s intelligible to others. Hence, they too must be founded on general principles that are part of our nature, although beyond what he called our “original instincts”, meaning the narrower instincts that we share with animals [A Treatise of Human Nature book 3 part 1 sect. 2].

Well, that insight, which I think is accurate, should lead directly to efforts to develop something like a grammar of moral judgment. That’s an enterprise very much like the inquiry into the principles that are encoded somehow in our brains but permit us to do what you and I are now doing, and more broadly to produce and understand linguistic expressions over an unbounded range and use them in a way which is appropriate to circumstances and intelligible to others, even though they may be quite new in our own history, our own experience, in fact all of history. Well, as was recognized a century before Hume, these principles must be universal, hence grounded in our nature and the basis for acquisition of any particular language. Today we would say that the principles of language and moral judgment are part of our genetic endowment, part of human biology. In both cases, there are culturally specific and universal aspects, in both the case of internal faculty of language and moral judgment. These things can be studied — they are part of science — in fact studied in rather similar ways.

Inquiry into the moral faculty in these terms was undertaken by the leading American moral and political philosopher of the late 20th century, John Rawls, who relied explicitly on the analogy of two linguistic theories that were being developed in the 1960s at the time that he was writing his classic work Theory of Justice. Rawls in fact put this aspect of his work aside under severe criticism by moral philosophers, turned to core issues for him. The criticisms were re-examined and I think adequately refuted in a doctoral dissertation a few years ago by John Mikhail, who is now a law professor at Georgetown. A forthcoming book of his [Moral Grammar: Rawls’ Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral Judgment], based upon the dissertation develops this, and also presents empirical investigation of moral judgments in puzzling thought experiments that have been designed by moral philosophers. This experimental work reveals that intuitions in these quite puzzling cases are typically instantaneous and reflexive in adults and children, with systematic changes through early childhood development, much as in other aspects of development. He then goes on to develop a theoretical explanation in terms of fixed principles that can be regarded as a development of Rawls’ Theory of Justice and the much earlier work of Hume in other classical writers on our natural instincts.

There’s another book soon to come out by Harvard primatologist and cognitive scientist Marc Hauser carrying such inquiries further. [It] includes comparative studies and more general ideas about what he calls “the moral organ”, analogous to the language organ, other subcomponents of the cognitive systems that are a core part of our biological nature. Well, in recent years, these topics have become a lively field of theoretical and empirical inquiry, from many points of view, incidentally; these are study of principles that underlie intuitive conceptions of justice and rights and their cultural variety — their limited cultural variety and their universal properties. That could someday provide foundations for a more substantive theory of just war. But it remains largely a task for the future; it’s underway in interesting ways.

Well, finally a couple of words on the codification of these intuitive judgments in the past century. I’ll keep it to the period after World War Two, though the earlier conventions have very clear and significant contemporary relevance: Hague Conventions of 1907 for example. I can come back to that it if you like. The post Second World War codification of laws of war consists primarily of the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg principles later adopted by the General Assembly. Well, as you know, I’m sure, the Charter bars “the threat or use of force” except in two instances: if authorized by the Security Council of the United Nations; or, under Article 51 of the Charter, in “self-defense” against “armed attack” until the Security Council acts. The phrase “armed attack” is conventionally interpreted in terms of Daniel Webster’s principle, which extends armed attack to cases where, in his words, “the necessity” for action is urgent — is “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment of deliberation.” Any other resort to force is a “war crime”, in fact “the supreme international crime”, encompassing all the evil that follows, in the words of the Nuremberg tribunal.

There was a High-level UN Panel — meeting issued its report in December, 2004, included, among others, former National Social Security advisor Brent Scowcroft. It concluded that “Article 51 needs neither extension nor restriction of its long-understood scope.” It “should be neither rewritten nor reinterpreted.” Last September [2005], the UN World Summit reaffirmed — I’m quoting — that “the relevant provisions of the Charter are sufficient to address the full-range of threats to international peace and security.” The summit further endorsed “the responsibility to commit ourselves…to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.” The summit granted no new “right of intervention” to individual states or regional alliances whether under humanitarian or other professed grounds, and it established no “responsibility to protect”, contrary to what was widely alleged in news reports and commentary.

The High-level Panel of December 2004 had reached the same conclusion, in words that were specifically directed at international — [correction:] at intellectual opinion and state practice in the West in recent years. Its words were these: “For those impatient with [declaring Article 51 to be appropriate as formulated], the answer must be that, in a world full of perceived potential threats, the risk to the global order and the norm of non-intervention on which it continues to be based is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted. Allowing one to so act is to allow all.” Allowing one to so act is to allow all. Here the panel is presupposing the principle of universality, namely that we apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others, if not more stringent ones. That’s perhaps the most elementary of moral truisms and it’s the foundation of just war theory if that theory is to be taken that all seriously. The principle, however, is flatly rejected in the elite intellectual, moral and political culture of the most powerful states and it’s explicitly rejected by official doctrine. That includes the expositors and advocates of just war theory, also includes a substantial legal literature; it’s pretty easy to illustrate — there’s plenty of material in print about it — and we can draw some conclusions from that.

In this connection, let me end by saying that it’s worth remembering some eloquent words on the principal of universality, the foundation of just war theory and any serious moral theory: the comments by Justice Robert Jackson. He was the chief for the council for the prosecution at Nuremberg. He informed the tribunal that: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are the crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants to a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

The “supreme international crime” for which the defendants were hanged at Nuremberg was defined clearly enough by Justice Jackson at Nuremberg. He proposed to the tribunal that an “aggressor” is a state that is the first to carry out “invasion of its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war, of the territory of another state.” Illustrations of that too are easy enough to find and others are on the horizon. It’s again noteworthy that these considerations are virtually excluded from the dominant intellectual and moral culture in the West rather generally, although we have no difficulty at all in applying them to official enemies. Well, once again, there’s nothing special about our own country in this respect, except that it’s more powerful than others. Such evasions with regard to the acts of one’s own state are close to universal; they disfigure intellectual history as far back as you go. To the maxim of Tacitus that I quoted, we may add an observation by the President John Adams: “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak.” I think that’s another near universal, again all too easy to illustrate from the traditional practice of governments and the educated classes within them.

Well, to return to the beginning: what can one learn from just war theory? My feeling is that from the literature on just war, we learn mostly about the prevailing moral and intellectual climate in which we live. Scientific inquiry into moral psychology and its roots in our nature may someday provide important insights; but practice cannot wait for that day, any more than engineering has waited for physics or medicine for biology, for centuries in these cases, which are much simpler ones and much more accessible to inquiry than human nature. Thirdly, the codification of laws of war has over time had a notable civilizing effect, but the gap between professed ideals and actual practice is much too large to be tolerated in my opinion. Thanks.

[Q & A]

Chomsky: Your chance to talk. [I should] repeat that the questioners won’t be filmed. So you can feel free to talk.

Questioner #1: Sir, I was just wondering if you believe the United States of America has a responsibility to intervene in cases where just war says that it is justified to intervene?

Chomsky: Do I think that there’s a responsibility to intervene in cases where just war theory concludes that it is correct to intervene? Is that the question? Personally, I agree with the UN Charter, the High-level UN Panel of December 2004, and the UN World Summit, which I quoted. But I can’t really answer the question because as far as I can determine — you can tell me if I’m wrong — just war theory never tells you anything. It doesn’t tell you when it’s proper to intervene. What it tells you is: “I think it is proper to intervene.” Well, you know, I may also think so, but there’s a big gap between assertion and argument, between surmise and evidence. So if you can tell me where just war theory entails that we ought to intervene, we can consider the question. But until that’s done, we can’t really consider the question.

Questioner #2: Sir, I was wondering, do you believe that it would have been right to reassess Article 51 of the UN Charter? And do you believe that by not reassessing and not rewriting it, it loses relevancy?

Chomsky: I’m sorry, I didn’t get it. By…? By…? Could you say it again?

Questioner #2: By not reassessing it…

Chomsky: …not reassessing it…

Questioner #2: …and not rewriting it…

Chomsky: Yeah.

Questioner #2: …do you believe it loses its…?

Chomsky: Well, it has been reassessed, repeatedly. For example, by the High-level UN Panel of December — that issued its report on 2004 — with many distinguished participants. I mentioned Brent Scowcroft, but there are others. Yes, that’s exactly what they did: They reassessed the UN Charter. And their conclusion is what I read. The UN World Summit last September again reassessed the UN Charter and that’s what it concluded. Maybe there should be a further reassessment; fine, then let’s undertake it, and let’s consider their arguments, or other arguments. But we can’t say that it hasn’t been reassessed. I mean, we can say that we haven’t paid any attention to it. Well, that’s possible, in fact true. But it certainly has been reassessed by very respectable and leading figures. And their conclusions in my opinion at least are pretty justified. However, to get back to the main topic, I don’t think just war theory tells us anything about that. When we judge these things, we’re judging them on another basis: on the basis of actual evidence about what happens in particular cases in terms of our fundamental moral principles which we should try to explicate and apply, like the principle of universality. That’s the way we should reassess it. Also we should, I think, think seriously about the statement that I quoted of the December 2004 Panel, that was directed to people like us. It was directed to intellectual opinion in the West. And you can read it again, but what they said is: the foundations of world order — based on the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of others, not forcible intervention — is too important and too fragile to be destroyed, or the consequences will be terrible, because for one to act is to grant the authority to all, at least if we believe in elementary moral principles. That’s a heavy burden to bear. Maybe we could come up with a different conclusion in some cases. Actually personally I think we can, but it has to be argued.

Questioner #3: Sir…you said that it’s possible that Article 51 needs to be reassessed, but you mentioned earlier when you were referencing Walzer’s book that he said that the Israeli preemptive strike was justified — that he said that the Israeli preemptive strike was justified.

Chomsky: “Undoubtedly.”

Questioner #3: You also stated that his arguments did not really have justification by his theory. However, in the case of the preemptive strike, he does say that there are several criteria that are necessary for the Israeli attack to be justified: specifically the fact that the Egyptian army was standing at a state of readiness that the Israeli army was incapable of holding. So under Article 51, even though Egypt had not yet invaded Israel — they were not at war. However, what Egypt was doing tactically put Israel at a severe disadvantage. So under our modern definition of war, it seems to me that it ought to be — “it seems to me”. [laughs] It seems logical that it ought to be called an act of war: what Egypt was doing, putting Israel at such a disadvantage. So doesn’t Article 51 definitely need some reassessment?

Chomsky: Well, Article 51 clearly does not apply. I read Article — I mean, we can argue that it was justified, but we can’t say that Article 51 justifies it, not under Daniel Webster’s characterization or any other one that’s accepted by the international community. We might argue — and here’s where I think you could make an argument — that if you consider the range of issues that arose at the time, the preemptive strike was justified. Maybe one can give such an argument. But the point is that no argument is given to that effect, none of the relevant facts are considered, and this is regarded as one of the half dozen cases where just war theory entails that the use of military force was legitimate. Just war theory doesn’t entail that. It doesn’t entail anything. What it tells you is: “well, I, Michael Walzer, believe this was justified”, but without giving any reasons and without looking into the background. If you look into the background, it’s a lot more complex than that. There’s a lot of literature and scholarship on it: The US didn’t happen to agree. There were all sorts of possibilities: you could’ve taken — I mean I don’t want to — if you want, I’ll run through the background. But it’s quite intricate and complex, going back to the question of free passage through the Straits of Tiran, and whether that should be brought to the World Court, which the US and Israel refused to do and Egypt insisted on. It involves Israeli strikes against Syrian targets. All sorts of things. So, yes, there’s a complicated background; you can look at them; you could decide, maybe, that in the light of these complex circumstances, perhaps Israel was entitled to make a preemptive strike. But that’s not what’s claimed. What’s claimed is that without looking any evidence, just war theory — whatever it is, it’s not easy to determine — just war theory entails that this is one of the half dozen cases in the last century in which the use of force was “no doubt” legitimate, and the only case in which the preemptive strike was legitimate. And we can also raise the question of universality. I mean I don’t believe and I’m sure you don’t believe that Iran has a right to, say, carry out terrorist acts in the United States right now. But undoubtedly it’s under a serious threat. And undoubtedly the threat is simply overwhelming as compared with Iran’s capacities. But it would be outrageous to suggest that, of course. And if it’s outrageous to suggest that, why is it legitimate in this case? I mean, for one to act is to give the right to all. And we can give a whole lot of other examples. I mean, let me give an even more outrageous one, ok, not ’cause I accept it of course, but just as an example. Nobody I know of who’s semi-sane goes out every December 7th and celebrates Pearl Harbor Day. However, if we use these arguments, you can do it. Japan, on December 7th, attacked US military bases in, effectively, two US colonies, territories claimed by the US — Hawaii and the Philippines — attacked military bases. The Japanese were perfectly capable of reading what was being written in U.S. public journals. And in fact US intelligence which had cracked the Japanese codes know that they knew about it. What was being written — going all way up to the high military command, being reported by, you know, political commentators in the New York Times — was that the United States was — that B17s were running off the Boeing assembly line, designed to be able to burn to the ground — what they were called — the “ant heaps” in which the Japanese lived, these wooden cities; you could burn them to the ground with our B17 attacks. Furthermore, B17s were being shipped from the Atlantic, where they were needed, to Pacific bases in preparation for such attacks [Arthur Krock, “Philippines as a Fortress: New Air Power Gives Islands Offensive Strength, Changing Strategy in Pacific,” New York Times, 19 November 1941, p. A4]. Well, you know, is that a threat? Yes, it’s a pretty serious threat. Does that justify Pearl Harbor? I mean, not in ten million years. But if that doesn’t, why does this justify it. ([December 7th is] my birthday incidentally, so I have a special interest in that day. [laughs])

Questioner #4: Sir, up here. Cadet Hobson. I just want to know if you thought that our operations in our war were preemptive or preventative, and…

Chomsky: Sorry I couldn’t hear the first part.

Questioner #4: Do you think our operations in Iraq are preventive or preemptive, and do you think that our operations in Iraq are just or unjust?

Chomsky: Well, there was interesting terminology in that. The administration presented it and in fact the National Security Council described — you know, they had that in mind, but more generally — as preemptive war. But it certainly isn’t preemptive war by any stretch of the imagination. More accurately you could call it “preventive” war. OK, you could say, “We have to prevent a potential attack against us.” Personally, I don’t see much justification for that, even if you accept that they believed all the reports that Colin Powell was giving at the UN Security Council and so on. Even if we accept that all that was believed, it doesn’t seem to me that preventive war in such a case is legitimate. And as you know the world didn’t think so either. There were international polls taken on this. And outside the United States and — to a less — to a more limited extent — England, you could barely find a country in the world where support for it was above 10%. In fact, the only two exceptions in the international polls that were taken were India and Israel. But both of them had something different in mind. What they had in mind was their own repression of occupied territories: Kashmir and the [Israeli-]Occupied Territories. You know, they liked the idea of preventive war by the powerful. But they weren’t talking about this. However, in the rest of the world, it was almost nonexistent: you know, 10% or less. Again, we have the same question: If preventive war is legitimate under those circumstances, it’s legitimate for everybody. OK, that means it’s legitimate for Iran today. I mean, to take another case: it is simply undeniable — I mean you read it right in US official documents — that the United States has been carrying out a terrorist war against Cuba since 1960. I mean, at first it was with direct participation. In more recent years, it’s just with tolerance. But that it happened isn’t even questionable. You know, John F. Kennedy assigned his brother Robert Kennedy the task of running the terrorist war. It was to be his highest priority. Robert Kennedy’s official — you know, more or less official biographer, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, who is a well-known historian, who was a Kennedy — member of the Kennedy team — a Latin American advisor. He writes that Robert Kennedy’s task was to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba [Robert Kennedy and His Times]. And if you look back at the record, it was no joke. And it continues, now still based on US soil. And the US harbors — happily harbors terrorists who were involved in it. Does that give Cuba the right to carry out terrorist acts in the US to prevent this. Did it ever give them the right? Well, I don’t think so and I’m sure you don’t think so. But if preventive war is legitimate, why not? And in fact, you know, there are many other cases where — take, say, Lebanon in 1982, when Israel was preparing the attack, and in fact trying desperately to conjure up an excuse for the attack. They were bombing Lebanon, hoping for some retaliation that can be as used as a pretext. And that was a serious attack, killed probably — maybe 20,000 people, you know, destroyed a large part of southern Lebanon, the city of Beirut, much of it. Did that give Lebanon — or the Palestinians in Lebanon the right to carry out terrorist acts in Israel, prior to it, to prevent the war? Well, I certainly don’t think so; I’m sure you don’t. But if preventive war is legitimate under such ambiguous cases as Iraq, why isn’t that legitimate? So, no, I don’t think it was just; I think it was aggression.

Questioner #5: Sir, Walzer’s “Legalist Paradigm” — when he describes it, he also describes three provisions, one of which being the human rights provision, saying that it is justified to intervene if human rights are being violated. Would you give any credence to the argument that Saddam Hussein was in fact a tyrant that did violate human rights…?

Chomsky: Oh, he certainly did.

Questioner #5: …even though there were other reasons given for war, such as WMD? And additionally, aggressors — Walzer also describes aggressors as also being just to go against — to go to war against. One. And did he ever lose his status as an aggressor from the first Gulf War?

Chomsky: He lost his status as an aggressor when he was driven out of Kuwait, just as Israel lost its status as an aggressor when, after 22 years, it pulled out of Lebanon. But — and I can give plenty of other examples close to home. But as for the human rights violations, they were horrendous. And here’s one of the cases where it really is important to look at facts before you make decisions. And we know the facts. They’re not secret. So, yes, Saddam Hussein carried out horrendous human rights violations. In fact he’s on trial for them right now. But have a look at the trial. Saddam Hussein is on trial for crimes that he committed in 1982, right? Killed — charged with killing — probably accurately — killing about 150, or signing the death warrant for 150 or so Shi’ites who were involved in an uprising. Yeah that’s a crime. 1982 happens to be an important year in US-Iraqi relations. This should be headlines in a free press in my opinion. It was a very important year. 1982 was the year in which Ronald Reagan dropped Iraq from the list of states supporting terrorism so that the US could start providing him with extensive aid, including military aid, including means to develop biological and chemical weapons and missiles and weapons of mass — and nuclear weapons. He was dropped from — and Donald Rumsfeld the next — shortly after went to firm up the agreement. The next charge against Saddam Hussein — the one that’s going to come along, it’s been announced — is a much more serious crime: the atrocities against the Kurds in 1987-1988, the al-Anfal massacres of Halabja. Yeah, they were terrible, probably killed 100,000 people. The US didn’t object. In fact the Reagan administration blocked efforts in Congress even to protest against it. Furthermore the support for Saddam increased and continued.

In fact Saddam was given an extraordinary privilege, remarkable: I mean he was allowed — he got away with attacking a US naval vessel [the USS Stark] and killing 37 soldiers — seamen in 1987. That’s pretty astonishing; nobody can get away with that. But we were supporting — the Reagan administration was so strongly in support of Saddam, right through the worst atrocities, they even let him get away with that. I mean, in 19 — this continued after the end of the war with Iran, after the worst atrocities. In 1989, Iraqi nuclear engineers were invited to the United States to take part in a conference — this was in Portland, Oregon — in which they were trained in how to develop weapons of mass destruction. I mean, that’s 1989. And furthermore George Bush #1 told us why it was being done. He said, we have to provide aid to Saddam because it’s our responsibility to help “US exporters” and because he contributes to “stability in the region”. In fact that continued. I mean, take the — After the invasion of Kuwait, after he was driven out of Kuwait, you know, Iraq was practically bombed into the rubble, the US had total control of the area. There was an uprising — April — March/April 1991 — Shi’ite uprising in the south, probably would’ve overthrown him. There were rebelling Iraqi generals. Good chance he would have been overthrown. Well, the Bush administration determined that they would essentially permit Saddam to crush it. They [Saddam’s forces] used military helicopters, other armed equipment. They [the Bush administration] didn’t have to do that. That led to a huge massacre. And it was described. You know, you can go back and read the New York Times right after that. They said, well, you know, it’s regrettable but there’s a consensus among the US and its allies — meaning Saudi Arabia and Britain — there’s a consensus that — I’m virtually quoting — that Saddam Hussein offers more “hope” for the “stability” of the region than those who were trying to overthrow him [Alan Cowell, New York Times, 11 April 1991]. That’s 1991, you know. Yeah, the human rights violations were horrendous. Does that have anything to do with the invasion? No, nothing, you know.