Iraq and US Foreign Policy

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Peshawa Abdulkhaliq Muhammed

Kurdistani Nwe Newspaper, December 25, 2006

When we are talking about regime change in Iraq, you believe that the US did this for oil. But at the same as you know the US gets oil from other Gulf countries, South American countries, and Norway. How do you explain that?

The primary issue is not access but rather control. That is clear both from internal documentation and from the historical record. The US followed the same Middle East policies for decades when it was not using a drop of Middle East oil, and even now, intelligence projects that while controlling the Middle East for the traditional reasons, the US should rely on more secure Atlantic Basin reserves: West Africa and the Western hemisphere. Hence the kinds of considerations you raise are of only limited significance.

Over 60 years ago, the State Department described the oil reserves of the Gulf as “a stupendous source of strategic power” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” Iraq is at the heart of the region, and is itself estimated to have the second largest reserves in the world (after Saudi Arabia). Iraqi sources are also very cheap to extract: no deep sea drilling, extraction from tar sands, etc. Establishment of a US client state in Iraq, and a base for long-term military deployment (as is now being implemented), would greatly enhance US dominance over this “stupendous source of strategic power” and ensure that the wealth from this great “material prize” would flow into the preferred hands. That is understood by the more astute policy analysts and planners. One of them, Zbigniew Brzezinski, pointed out that if the invasion of Iraq succeeded, the US would gain “critical leverage” over its industrial rivals in Europe and Asia. He was reiterating the observations of one of the most important of the early post-war planners, George Kennan, who advised that control over Middle East oil would provide the US with “veto power” over industrial rivals. The same factors enter into the conflicts over pipelines from Central Asia: US planners want to ensure that they go to the West, not the East, and that the pipelines should follow a complicated path to avoid Russia and Iran, so as to ensure US control. China, Russia, and other participants in the Asian Energy Security Grid and Shanghai Cooperation Council naturally have different ideas. Vice-President Dick Cheney, the most influential foreign policy figure in the Bush Administration, observed that control over pipelines can serve as a “tool of intimidation.” He was referring of course to control by others, but understands perfectly well that the same is true of US control.

These matters, though obvious, are largely excluded from Western discourse. Doctrinal managers would like us to believe that the US and UK would have “liberated” Iraq even if its major exports were lettuce and pickles and the major energy resources of the world were in the South Pacific. It takes really impressive discipline “not to see” the obvious.

Failing to prove the previous justifications to invade Iraq, the US then used democracy concerns to justify the war. This is your viewpoint stated in an interview. But as you know in the agenda of post- 9/11 New World Order spreading democracy is a key objective. So why do you doubt this democracy? While it is obvious that Saddam had and used chemical weapons against the Kurds?

To be more accurate, I was citing reports in the mainstream press and scholarship, which reviewed these very clear changes as they occurred. Interviews do not have footnotes, but the sources are cited in my books Hegemony or Survival (2004) and Failed States (2006). Bush, Blair, Powell and others stressed insistently that the “single question” is whether Saddam will abandon his programs of weapons of mass destruction. It was only after the failure to discover WMD that government rhetoric shifted to the President’s “messianic mission” to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East. Very quickly, journalism and much of scholarship shifted and commentators “jumped on the bandwagon,” as the prominent Middle East specialist Augustus John Norton accurately wrote. The “messianic mission” was proclaimed in Washington in November 2003 with great fanfare, and since then has become a staple of commentary, as reviewed in Failed States.

True, there were also the ritual phrases about bringing democracy, but they were marginal, and are routine no matter what policies are being undertaken. These conclusions, clear from the factual record, are now underscored by recently released secret documents, including the Presidential Directive of Aug. 29, 2002, called “Iraq Goals, Objectives and Strategy.” The proimary goal is “to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction” and to prevent Iraq from “becoming a more dangerous threat to the region and beyond,” and to cut Iraq’s “links to and sponsorship of international terrorism.” Scattered through, again, are the routine and meaningless phrases about “moderation, pluralism and democracy,” which no one takes seriously because they accompany every plan, and always have. Not only is all of this familiar from long before, but it is also quite similar to the rhetoric of other powers, including the worst monsters. Even Stalin proclaimed the mission of establishing democracy. These are among the reasons why no one should pay attention to the exalted rhetoric of political leaders: it is predictable, and therefore carries no information.

I might add that of all the people in the world, Kurds should be the first to recognize these elementary truths, after their long history of betrayal on the part of pretended benefactors.

There have also been strenuous efforts to create the myth that the post-9/11 agenda was spreading democracy. That is dramatically false. 9/11 was followed by a remarkable display of contempt for democracy, both in words and in deeds, perhaps unique in history. I have reviewed the record in the books mentioned, and will not repeat here, but it is unmistakable.

The truth of the matter is recognized by the most prominent scholar/advocates of “democracy promotion.” The most respected of them is Thomas Carothers, head of the Democracy and Law project of the Carnegie Endowment, who describes himself as a neo-Reaganite. He writes in part from an insider’s perspective, having served in Reagan’s State Department programs of “democracy enhancement.” He is an honest scholar, and recognizes that these programs were a failure, in fact, a highly systematic failure. In the regions where US influence was least, there was progress in democracy, despite strenuous efforts of the Reagan administration to prevent it. The worst record was in the regions where the US had the most influence. He also explains the reasons: Washington would permit only “top-down forms” of democracy in which traditional elites, linked to the US, would retain power in deeply undemocratic societies.

Carothers has also reviewed the record since the end of the Cold War, including the Bush II administration up to 2004. He finds a “strong line of continuity” through every administration: Washington supports democracy if and only if it conforms to strategic and economic interests. He regards this as a puzzle: US leaders are “schizophrenic.” There is a much simpler explanation, but it conflicts with standard doctrine about well-intentioned leaders who sometimes make unfortunate errors — another stance that is close to a historical universal. The record in Iraq follows the pattern very closely. There is a mountain of evidence supporting Carothers’s conclusion, in the Middle East and elsewhere. I have reviewed it in detail in print, in the books mentioned and earlier. The only evidence supporting the belief in the “messianic mission” is the rhetoric of leaders. It takes real discipline to jump on the bandwagon, as is routinely done in deeply indoctrinated Western societies. These delusions are safe enough for the powerful. For the victims to succumb to them has always led to disaster, as Kurds should not have to be reminded. The “strong line of continuity” persists without a break to the present moment, dramatically so, in fact. Merely to take one crucial example, last January Palestinians had an election, closely monitored and recognized to be free and fair. But they committed a serious crime: they voted “the wrong way.” Instantly, the US and Israel, with the support of Europe, moved to punish them severely for this intolerable act. Harsh sanctions were imposed, Israel withheld tax and custom duties that it is legally required to provide to the Palestinian Authority and stepped up its military attacks and expansion into the occupied territories, and even cut off water to the water-starved Gaza region — always with direct US support, and European tolerance and participation. Nothing could show more clearly the accuracy of Carothers’s conclusion, and the bitterness of the contempt for democracy among those who proclaim their “messianic mission” most passionately. Again, it takes real discipline to miss what is before our eyes, an unwise stance for the weak.

Every one can see the images of new Iraq, I do not talk about security yet, there was election, there is freedom of expression, and some other positive things. Why are not these positive steps appreciated by other Arab states? Do you think it is because of the US existence in Iraq? Or they fear their future?

The books I mention discuss the new Iraq,, and I will not repeat what is reviewed in detail there. There is also no need to review how the Iraq invasion has turned into one of the worst catastrophes in military history for the population. That much is familiar. Nevertheless, it was obvious from the start that the invasion would have two major accomplishments, quickly. And another major achievement came later, over US objections. The immediate achievements were to eliminate two brutal regimes: Saddam’s tyranny, and the US-UK sanctions. As I am sure you know, Saddam was strongly supported by the current administration and its immediate mentors right through his worst atrocities, including the massacres of the Kurds, and long after the war with Iran, and again after the Gulf war when Saddam crushed the Shi’ite rebellion that probably would have overthrown him had Bush I not granted him authority to crush it. Bush I also supported his attack against the Kurds, once again, but was compelled to reverse course in this case by a huge public outcry. As for the US-UK sanctions, in Arab areas they killed hundreds of thousands of people, strengthened the tyrant, compelled the population to rely on him for survival, and probably saved him from the fate of other murderous dictators, some quite comparable to Saddam, who were overthrown from within even though the US and UK supported them to the last moment of their bloody careers: Ceausescu, Suharto, Marcos, and a long list of others, to which new names are being added regularly. Those two consequences of the war were surely welcome, though they were obviously not the reasons — support for Saddam through his worst atrocities is sufficient to demonstrate that.

Later, there was another major achievement, an impressive victory of non-violent resistance which overcame the desperate efforts of the Bush administration to prevent the first election elections and some semblance of democracy. The facts are too well known and uncontroversial to review in detail. Popular protests, for which Ayatollah Sistani was the symbol, compelled the occupying army to permit the election. Of course, after having been compelled to permit them, Bush and Blair took credit for them, and commentary (which told the truth throughout most of the process) has been adjusted accordingly. The Bush administration has since been trying to control and subvert subsequent elections it was compelled to tolerate, in ways that again are too familiar to require comment. It is also clear why the prospect of a sovereign and more or less democratic Iraq is a nightmare for American planners. Since I have reviewed the reasons — again pretty obvious — in the books mentioned and elsewhere, I will not do so again here.

It should be clear why the US-backed tyrannies are as frightened by the prospects of a sovereign democratic Iraq as Washington is. They do not conceal the reasons. They are deeply concerned that a sovereign democratic Iraq is likely to extend the power of their Shiite enemy in Teheran, and might intensify the popular movements for democracy and reform in their own countries. The Saudi royal family understands full well that the mostly Shiite population in the border region, inspired by moves towards sovereignty in Iraq, is likely to continue its efforts to overcome harsh repression and to gain some degree of autonomy in the region where most of Saudi oil happens to be. The Egyptian dictatorship is aware that if it were to permit anything like free elections, the Muslim Brotherhood would gain substantial political power. The same is true elsewhere. For such reasons, the US-backed tyrannies have joined with Washington in trying to crush democratizing forces in the Arab world for many years, and continue to do so. Much the same is true beyond the Middle East, and of course nor just in US domains. Again, the record is reviewed in some detail in the books mentioned, and I will not repeat.

In a talk delivered at the University of Toledo, you stated that the peace process will not be realized in the Middle East without solving the Kurdish Question. How do you see the reality of Iraqi Kurdistn Region at present? In case of any possible change in Iraq, how do you see the future of this region?

My own view has always been that there should be an independent Kurdistan, which would include northern Iraq and large parts of neighboring countries. I have spoken about that in the US, as you mention, but more importantly in Diyarbakir, several times. I do not think it is likely tot happen in the foreseeable future. It is conceivable, however, that a form of federalism might develop in the region, which would permit considerable autonomy. I think that is a sensible outcome in most of the world, particularly in the complex West Asian region, but in Europe as well, where there are encouraging moves in that direction. I doubt, frankly, that Iraqi Kurdistan would be viable, surrounded by hostile neighbors, and with limited access even to the Iraqi market and its resources and outlet to the sea — limited, of course, by the machinations of British imperialism, but still at least something.

After 9/11 a new stage has widely begun, a stage of Religious Terrorism. Do you think after 9/11 the world should divide into two sides i.e. those sponsoring terrorism, and those countering terrorism with the US? Or, as Henry Kissinger believes, is this the beginning of a reshaping of the international system once again?

That is, again, largely propaganda. Jihadi terrorism flourished virulently in the 1970s, particularly in Egypt. The Reagan administration — that is, the present Bush administration and its mentors — worked diligently, along with their allies Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and others, to create a radical Islamist militant force for Afghanistan, not to defend the Afghans, which would have been legitimate, but for the usual ugly reasons of state. The Jihadi armies they assembled are the immediate source of the al-Qaeda network. The Reagan administration also supported the Zia ul-Haq dictatorship in Pakistan as it fostered extremist Islamic elements, and egularly denied that Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons, though they knew it was true. And of course the US has been supporting the most extreme radical Islamists in opposition to secular Arab nationalism for half a century. The most extreme fundamentalist Arab state, Saudi Arabia, has been Washington’s closest and most valued ally in the region since its origins.

It is true that the hideous crimes of 9/11 were a turning point in world affairs. That was the first time that the West was subjected to a fraction of the crimes that it has regularly carried out against others for centuries, and still does. Merely to take one example, In its effects and horror, 9/11 scarcely compared to what South Americans often call “the first 9/11,” the US-backed Pinochet coup on 11 September 1973. For some discussion of this particular case and the comparison, scarcely known and mostly incomprehensible in the West though familiar in South America (including Chile, from which I have just returned), see Failed States.

It may be usefully recalled that the “war on terror” was declared by the Reagan administration on coming into office in 1981, accompanied by much of the rhetoric repeated by Bush II when he re-declared the war 20 years later: “plague of the modern age,” “return to barbarism in our time,” etc. To the surprise of no one familiar with history, Reagan’s “war on terror” quickly became a vicious terrorist war, destroying much of Central America, and with horrendous effects also in Southern Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. Those whose picture of the world is filtered through Western propaganda may be unaware of this, but they would do well to learn the facts, even for their own sake, surely for the sake of others.

Some scholars believe that the main danger is the use of technology by the terrorist groups. How do you explain that? Don’t you think the US has reasons to fight terrorism?

It is a very serious danger, and not hard to explain. US sponsorship of the Zia dictatorship in Pakistan led to a massive operation of export of nuclear technology. The main criminal, Abdul Qadeer Khan, is still protected. The invasion of Iraq, as predicted by intelligence agencies, sharply increased the threat of terror and nuclear proliferation, in fact well beyond what was anticipated, and may have even provided Islamist terrorists with means to develop WMD. As you know, the invaders stood by while the treasures of Western civilization were looted and destroyed, protecting only the oil and interior ministries. They also did not guard the stockpiles of WMD that were being dismantling by the UN inspectors who were expelled; the stockpiles were then systematically looted. Transfer or stealing of nuclear and other technologies from Russia is also a very serious hazard, and is in some ways the threat is being enhanced by Bush’s aggressive militarism, matters discussed in the mainstream literature of strategic analysis, some quoted in the two books mentioned. And there are many other sources, also discussed in these books.

Surely the US has reasons to fight terrorism, in two ways: First, by withdrawing its participation in terrorism and support for it, which would reduce the threat considerably; and second, by taking serious measures to combat the terrorist operations of radical Islamists and others. Unfortunately, these are not high priorities for the administration. Again, details are reviewed in the books mentioned.

What are the procedures to decrease the affect of terrorism? How do you see the aftermath of this ongoing war?

Keeping just to the terrorism of others, there is a very broad consensus among intelligence agencies and specialists on how to reduce the threat, again reviewed in the books mentioned. In brief, it is generally understood that terrorists regard themselves as a vanguard, trying to mobilize a population that opposes terrorism but has real grievances. Terrorists typically hope that the reaction to their crimes will intensify the grievances and help mobilize the population. As leading specialists have been stressing, Bush administration reactions have been exactly what the terrorists want; that is why some describe Bush as bin Laden’s best ally. To take merely one illustration, the most detailed scholarly work on Jihadis, by Fawwaz Gerges, reveals that the Jihadi movements harshly condemned the 9/11 crimes, and offered a real opportunity to isolate the perpetrators and significantly reduce or eliminate the threat. Instead, the Bush administration responded with extreme violence, particularly the invasion of Iraq, providing a great gift to the terrorist “vanguard’ by mobilizing support for them. The same renowned clerics who were issuing fatwas denouncing al-Qaeda were soon issuing fatwas denouncing the US and calling for resistance against it, thanks to Bush. The right approach is not only well known, but has been carried out with success. Consider, for example, Northern Ireland. IRA terror was quite a serious matter. For a long time, Britain responded with violence, escalating the terror. Finally, Britain (with US support) began taking seriously the real grievances of the Catholic population. Terror reduced, terrorists were isolated. Northern Ireland is not utopia, but the improvement in the past decade is remarkable.

On the aftermath of the ongoing war, I see no reason to doubt the conclusions of the CIA and other intelligence agencies: that it substantially increases the threat of terror, and will continue to do so, in just they ways they have detailed (and which i quoted).

In Hegemony or Survival you believed that the US is responsible for many disastrous mass killings; such as the original people of the US, those from Latin America and Mexico. But how do you explain the US role in saving Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, saving the Muslims of Kosovo, and saving Afghanistan from the most ghastly Islamic regime, and now saving Iraqi people?

To say that I “believed” it is a bit of an understatement. It is like saying that in the same book I “believed” that Saddam was guilty of shocking crimes. As for the cases you mention, first, the descriptions are incorrect, and second, to the extent that they are correct they merely show, once again, that great powers pursue their own interests, sometimes incidentally helping others. Japanese fascism, for example, was brutal and murderous, but Japanese aggression did lead to driving the white invaders out of Asia, opening the way to independence, saving tens of millions of lives in India alone, many more elsewhere. We do not ask how to “explain” this favorable consequence of fascist aggression as if it somehow is inconsistent with the vicious crimes of Japanese imperialism. Japanese propaganda of course claims that liberation of Asia from European imperialism was Japan’s goal, which is not entirely false, but we know better than to be deluded by these protestations of good intent.

In the cases you mention, we know the reasons, even from internal documents. Again, I have reviewed the documentary and historical record in detail elsewhere, including the books mentioned, and will have to refer to these books for sources. Let’s consider, briefly, the three examples in turn.

Kuwait. In 1958, immediately after the Qasim coup, British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd flew to Washington to consult with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. They determined that Britain should give nominal independence to its Kuwaiti colony, to prevent the virus of nationalism from spreading, but Britain would retain effective control, and would “ruthlessly intervene” if anything occurred to disrupt its rule, whether internal or external. The US adopted the same position with regard to the much richer prizes: Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The decision was put to the test in August 1990. Until then, the US and UK were strongly supporting their friend and ally Saddam. In 1989, Washington invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the US to learn advanced techniques for developing nuclear weapons. In April 1990, President Bush sent a delegation of Senators, led by 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, to convey his greetings to Saddam, and to assure him that he should disregard the criticism he sometimes reads from American journalists, who cannot be controlled by state power. Apparently misunderstanding instructions conveyed by Ambassador April Glaspie, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Of course, the US could not tolerate that. A primary concern, expressed at once by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, was that Saddam would withdraw leaving a puppet regime in place, which would be accepted by the Arab tyrannies that were Washington’s major allies. The US therefore determined to invade, dismissing opportunities for peaceful withdrawal. At the same time, the US invaded Panama, killing more people than Iraq killed in Kuwait and vetoing Security Council resolutions condemning the invasion, all in order to kidnap a petty thug who was convicted in Florida for crimes that he had mostly committed while on the CIA payroll and lauded by the Reagan administration. These events pass through the prism of Western ideology as “saving Kuwait.”

Let’s turn to Kosovo. Here we are fortunate to have an explanation of why the US bombed Serbia from the highest level of the Clinton administration: the concern was not the fate of the Kosovars, but rather that Serbia was not carrying out the required “political and social reforms” — the neoliberal programs that the Clinton administration sought to impose. It was known at once that the fate of the Kosovars was immaterial. Kosovo was an ugly place, with a steady level of atrocities. According to the UK, US, and European powers, many of the atrocities — perhaps most — were carried out by KLA guerrillas attacking from across the border in an efforr, usually successful, to elicit a harsh Serbian response that would arouse support for attacking Serbia. NATO commander Wesley Clark informed Washington that if NATO bombed, atrocities would sharply increase. He provided the same information to the international press as the bombing commenced. That is what happened. After 78 days of bombing, an agreement was reached that was a compromise between the NATO and Serbian positions on the eve of the bombing. During the bombing, Serbian president Milosevic was indicted for war crimes: all but one of the charges had to do with crimes committed after the NATO bombing, real crimes, elicited by the bombing, as anticipated. That comes down in official history as saving the Muslims of Kosovo.

Finally Afghanistan. The US supported the Taliban, caring nothing about their crimes. The official aim of the US-UK bombing in October 2001 was to compel the Taliban to hand over people the US suspected of involvement in 9/11; eight months later, the head of the FBI informed the national press that the FBI “believed” they were responsible, but had no real evidence. The bombing was undertaken with the expectation that it might drive several million people over the edge of starvation, in addition to the 5 million already on the edge. It was bitterly opposed not only by international aid agencies, but also by leading figures in the anti-Taliban opposition, including the US favorite, Abdul Haq, who charged that the US cared nothing about the Afghan people and was bombing just to “show its muscle,” undermining the promising efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within. His conclusion was reiterated at a meeting of 1000 anti-Taliban leaders from within Afghanistan and Pakistan a few weeks later. Three weeks after the bombing, the US and UK informed the people of Afghanistan that they would be bombed until they overthrew the Taliban. That war crime was the first mention of the goal of ridding the country of the Taliban. Of course, controlling Afghanistan would be highly beneficial to US power, considering its strategic location. The events are transmuted by Western doctrinal systems in the ways you describe.

To repeat, there is nothing to explain about the fact that great powers pursue their own interests, often with great violence and no concern for the populations that will be affected, and sometimes, incidentally, yielding gains for them. It is invariably accompanied by a posture of nobility and benevolence. That has been the course of history. There is nothing to explain, except for the particular circumstances in each case that conforms to the historical pattern.

With regard to current situation in Iraq, what are the real causes of this fiasco?

A few months after the invasion, I met a high official of the International Red Cross, who had been in Baghdad trying to reconstruct something of the health system that had been devastated by the sanctions and then the bombing. His previous experiences were in some of the world’s worst horror stories. He told me that he had never seen anything like the “arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence” of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney and the rest. By now that is a standard view among analysts of this incredible catastrophe. One is Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, in his detailed account entitled Fiasco. I presume they are correct.

What are the US strategic errors from the beginning of the war and now?

I can only repeat the conventional account, which I think is correct.

What are your recommendations for the future US policy in Iraq, especially regarding security?

At Nuremberg, aggression was determined to be the “supreme international crime,” which encompasses all of the evil that follows: all of the evil. The German Foreign Minister, for example, was hanged largely because he supported a preemptive strike against Norway to deter a likely British invasion. The Chief Counsel for the prosecution, American Justice Robert Jackson, declared after the verdict that we are handing the defendants a “poisoned chalice,” and if we commit similar crimes, the judgment of Nuremberg must be applied to us, or the trials will be revealed to have been a cynical farce. The Nazi criminals were perhaps unique in history. But Jackson’s words should not be forgotten.

Invading armies have no rights, only responsibilities. Among them are the responsibility to pay reparations for their crimes, and to hold the guilty accountable. A crucial responsibility is to pay careful attention to the will of the victims. The US and UK governments run regular polls in Iraq. According to the latest State Department poll, two-thirds of Baghadis want the occupying armies to leave immediately. The polls generally reveal that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis demand a firm timetable for withdrawal, within a year or less. Consistent with their normal contempt for democracy, Bush and Blair respond to every such revelation by declaring that there will be no timetable for withdrawal.

You and I are entitled to our own opinions as to what the invaders should do. We can even have an academic discussion about the topic. But our opinions mean nothing, just as the opinions of Bush, Blair, Cheney, and others mean nothing. What matters is what Iraqis want the occupying armies to do.

Apologists for Nazi Germany warned that withdrawal from occupied Europe would lead to major atrocities. They were right. In France, for example, thousands if not tens of thousands of collaborators were murdered. There were worse atrocities elsewhere. Were the Nazi apologists justified? Not in my opinion, nor I am sure yours. And for the same reason. The decision to withdraw does not lie in the hands of the invaders. That should be elementary.