Noam Chomsky debates Ian Williams in Foreign Policy in Focus

Noam Chomsky

“Ban Ki Moon and R2P”
By Ian Williams
Foreign Policy in Focus, August 3, 2009

Kofi Annan’s greatest achievement as UN secretary general was his deft steering of the UN General Assembly to accept the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine at the 2005 World Summit.

Rather than attempting the impossible task of rewriting the UN Charter, Annan got the assembled delegates to reinterpret it. The assembled government leaders declared that the threats to international peace and security that came under the organization’s remit included crimes against humanity, even when committed by a sovereign state within its borders.

Annan’s successor Ban Ki Moon is a staunch supporter of the concept of R2P. The report he delivered last week, as requested in 2005, framed the discussion in a way that precluded reopening the principle. But opponents at the General Assembly and their ideological allies outside were sedulously determined to weaken R2P in practice as much as possible.

The Chinese delegate, for instance, stood the whole concept on its head by declaring that the UN must not waver from “the principles of respecting state sovereignty and non-interference of internal affairs.” In contrast, Ban’s report referred with more nuance to the “abiding principles of responsible sovereignty.”

Debating R2P

To avert attempts to reverse the 2005 declaration R2P’s proponents, not least the UN secretariat, are keeping to a tightly written script. R2P isn’t the same as humanitarian intervention, they argue. Its three pillars are the responsibility of sovereign states to prevent crimes against their people, the responsibility of the international community to detect and avert such criminal situations, and the responsibility to apply varying degrees of coercion against the perpetrators from monitoring to sanctions to, if necessary, military intervention.

Proponents of R2P stress that only the UN Security Council can authorize such intervention. Ban Ki Moon’s report, however, does mention the General Assembly’s Uniting for Peace procedure, which the United States originally invoked to fight the Korean war in spite of the Soviet veto in the Security Council. Washington has since dismissed the procedure after the Palestinians used it to bypass the U.S. veto for Israel.

Humanitarian intervention — invoked by Hitler in the Sudetenland and Japan in Manchuria — is indeed a slippery and easily abused concept. Most recently, Tony Blair’s attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq as humanitarian intervention and Moscow’s attempt to invoke in Georgia the principle it denied in Kosovo show the dangers.

Of course, expediency is a global disease. Cuba, which sent Che Guevara to lead rebellions across the globe, is a determined advocate of national sovereignty. Ironically, some of the most determined upholders of state sovereignty are heirs to the Leninist tradition which, in the name of proletarian internationalism, took the Red Army variously to Warsaw, Budapest, and Hungary. One of the most vocal opponents is Hugo Chavez’s government, which has hardly been reticent to interfere in the politics of the neighbors.

Chomsky’s Intervention

The president of the General Assembly invited noted critic of U.S. foreign policy Noam Chomsky to address the audience on the issue of R2P. Chomsky quite rightly raised the question of why there was no intervention in East Timor or why the UN stood by as Israel attacked Lebanon and Gaza. However, he claimed that the NATO air raids on Serbia actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo. This latter claim isn’t only untrue but morally unpalatable in its spurious causality, like claiming that the British air raids on Germany precipitated the Nazi gas chambers. But at least Chomsky admitted that atrocities had taken place in Kosovo, which is much farther than some of his would-be acolytes have gone.

It also begs the question: Does Chomsky want international action to stop atrocities in Gaza, the Congo, or situations like Timor, or is he only opposed to “Western” interventions? Indeed, the astute delegate from Ghana took him to task for failing to address the principle of “noninterference.” The African Union’s charter specifically adopted “non-indifference.” Its charter includes the organization’s obligation to intervene.

Chomsky is quite right to point out the core weakness of the R2P proposals, which puts the onus of decision-making on the Security Council. The permanent five members of the Security Council (P5) use their veto power to protect their friends even as they accuse others of doing likewise. China protects Sudan, North Korea, and Zimbabwe, in the latter case following in British footsteps, since Britain vetoed resolutions on Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in times past. France covers for Morocco in Western Sahara. The United States has until now automatically covered for Israel, and Russia for Serbia. Britain and the United States were confident that they could use their vetoes to prevent their invasion of Iraq from appearing on the Security Council agenda just as Beijing ensures the exclusion of Taiwan from the UN and the issues of Tibet and the Uighurs from its agenda.

This expediency has given opponents of the R2P plenty of ammunition, even if their high-minded declarations about the sacredness of sovereignty tend to conceal an ugly, oligarchic self-interest. In effect, apologists for authoritarian sovereignty imply that they would happily let all murders go unchecked because some states get away with it. This argument boils down to saying that if the United States can do something, everybody else can as well, an anti-imperialism that ends up playing into the hands of leaders like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Fidel Castro, and Kim Jong Il. Despite their disparate ideologies, these authoritarian leaders share a deep rhetorical attachment to their countries’ national sovereignty combined with a cavalier disregard for the sovereignty of others, including their own citizenry.

The Problem of Implementation

While the 2005 summit overturned the principle that what governments did within their national borders was no one else’s concern, it has some way to go before achieving practical implementation. In fact, despite Bolivarian bluster from Venezuela and a few others, the real problem is not the possibility of a complaisant Security Council authorizing dubiously humanitarian interventions. The problem remains the paralysis of the body in the face of humanitarian disasters. In fact, conditioning the principle on reform of the Security Council is tantamount to making it contingent on pigs flying in formation past UN headquarters.

The possibility, the probability, and even better the certainty, of retribution would surely give pause to future leaders. The R2P principle will in the end come to life because of global public opinion forcing action. For example, even China was forced to moderate its support of Sudan in the face of international public opinion.

But Ban Ki Moon, who is tougher than his mild diplomatic manner may suggest, strongly reminded delegates that the “Secretary-General has an obligation to tell the Security Council — and in this case the General Assembly as well — what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear.” His report says that the Secretary General “must be the spokesperson for the vulnerable and the threatened when their Governments become their persecutors instead of their protectors or can no longer shield them from marauding armed groups,” and he singles out the P5, who “bear particular responsibility because of the privileges of tenure and the veto power they have been granted under the Charter. I would urge them to refrain from employing or threatening to employ the veto in situations of manifest failure to meet obligations relating to the responsibility to protect…and to reach a mutual understanding to that effect.”

Ban can do a great deal to foment that global opinion, and is giving every appearance of wanting to do so. While the U.S. press treats Ban as invisible, the rest of the world has leant him their ears. In a recent global poll, he was the second most trusted global figure after Obama. Only global public opinion can force the P5 to live up to their responsibilities — the first of which is to ensure that no regime, not even their close friends, has a guaranteed veto against international action.

The single most significant step the United States could take to disarm some of the critics is to reverse John Bolton’s dubiously legal “unsigning” of the Rome Treaty on the International Criminal Court. Washington can hardly call upon the Sudanese to respect the indictment of a court that it has refused to accept itself. To ensure greater global public support for R2P — and answer some of the legitimate charges of the doctrine’s critics — the United States must end its own double standards on international treaties and military intervention. Obama is more likely than any president in 40 years to make moves in that direction, so R2P has more of a future than it did a year ago.


“Kosovo, East Timor, R2P, and Ian Williams”
By Noam Chomsky
Foreign Policy in Focus, August 17, 2009

In a discussion of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in Foreign Policy In Focus [August 3, 2009, above], Ian Williams vehemently denies my uncontroversial observation, well-known to everyone familiar with the Kosovo events, that “NATO air raids on Serbia [beginning March 24 1999] actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo.” He declares that this familiar observation “isn’t only untrue but morally unpalatable in its spurious causality, like claiming that the British air raids on Germany precipitated the Nazi gas chambers.”

Williams doesn’t explain what he regards as untrue and morally offensive, so let us review carefully what he should certainly know well, and ask what might support his charges.

There is massive evidence about Kosovo in impeccable Western sources, never questioned. That includes two compilations of documents by the State Department, detailed reports of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe Kosovo Verification Mission monitors, a British parliamentary inquiry, reports of NATO, the UN, and more. As I wrote in the paper on R2P to which Williams refers [http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/22227], the results are unequivocal: The worst atrocities began as the bombing started (to be precise, there was a slight increase a few days earlier when the monitors were withdrawn, over Serbian objections, in preparation for the bombings). On March 27, NATO Commander General Wesley Clark informed the press that the vicious Serbian reaction was “entirely predictable.” He added shortly after that the sharp escalation of atrocities had been “fully anticipated” and was “not in any way” a concern of the political leadership.

Clark clarified the matter further in his memoirs. He reports that on March 6, 1999, he had informed Secretary of State Madeline Albright that if NATO proceeded to bomb Serbia, “almost certainly [the Serbs] will attack the civilian population,” and NATO will be able to do nothing to prevent that reaction. Correspondingly, the Milosevic indictment kept to crimes after the bombing, with a single exception, which we know could not have offended the consciences of the United States, the United Kingdom, and their supporters, as discussed in my R2P paper.

We may ask, then, what is untrue and morally offensive in my repeating uncontroversial facts that Williams doesn’t happen to like. Was it untrue and morally offensive, for example, for General Clark to inform the White House and the press that the bombing would precipitate the worst atrocities — correctly, as it quickly turned out?

Considerably more remarkable even than these apologetics for NATO is what Williams says about the crimes in East Timor at the same time. These crimes were far worse than anything reported in Kosovo prior to the NATO bombing, and had a background far more grotesque than anything claimed in the Balkans. He writes that “Chomsky quite rightly raised the question of why there was no intervention in East Timor.” It would have been outlandish to raise that question, and I did not do so. Since Williams favors Holocaust analogies, it would be like raising the question of why Nazis didn’t intervene to stop the slaughter of Jews by local forces in the regions they occupied.

The question doesn’t arise, and for a simple reason: The United States and United Kingdom had been intervening for decades, providing decisive support for atrocities, and continued to do so right through the escalation of crimes in 1999, even after the vast destruction in early September. There was no secret about the reasons. In my R2P paper I quoted National Security Council advisor Sandy Berger who, after the September atrocities, dismissed the matter by saying “I don’t think anybody ever articulated a doctrine which said that we ought to intervene wherever there’s a humanitarian problem” — in this case, a “problem” we are directly expediting. Britain and Australia reacted the same way. As discussed further in the same paper, there would have been no need for any form of intervention: it would have been enough for the United States, United Kingdom, and their allies to have withdrawn their decisive participation in Indonesia’s crimes. That was demonstrated a few days after Berger’s dismissal of the “problem” when, under strong domestic and international pressure, Clinton finally informed the Indonesian generals that the game was over and they instantly withdrew, allowing a UN peacekeeping force to enter unopposed — a step that could have been taken at any time during the 25-year horror story.

It is understandable that Williams doesn’t like to look at the blood on his hands, but it cannot be so simply washed or wished away.

If Williams really is uninformed about the topics he is addressing, he can find easily accessible sources that review them in some detail, including my book A New Generation Draws the Line (Verso, 2000) and a great deal more since.

On R2P, I have nothing to add beyond what is in the R2P paper. As pointed out there, the version of R2P adopted by the 2005 UN summit affirms what had already been accepted, at most with a shift of emphasis, which is why it was so easily adopted. There is, however, a radically different version of R2P, presented by the 2001 Evans Commission, which adds a provision allowing “regional” organizations to act without Security Council authorization in their “area of jurisdiction.” That provision is sharply distinct from the African Union (AU) exception, which permits AU intervention within the AU. In practice, the Evans extension refers solely to NATO, which claims an extremely broad “area of jurisdiction.” The Evans version of R2P simply reinstates “the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention,” which has always been vigorously opposed by the non-aligned countries, the traditional victims.

Much of the discussion underway evades or obscures this crucial distinction, as well as the fact, which I also discussed, that the great powers right now are adopting Berger’s principle, refusing to exercise the responsibility they like to orate about, as could be done in some cases in quite straightforward ways. I also discussed the AU exception, and why it differs so radically from the OAS Charter. Judging by the irrelevant question on non-intervention he raises, Williams did not hear or read that section of my talk. I cannot, of course, take responsibility for his baseless beliefs about my views on this and other matters.


“Response to Chomsky”
By Ian Williams
Foreign Policy in Focus, August 21, 2009

I am afraid that simply because Noam Chomsky makes an ex cathedra observation does not make it “uncontroversial” — not even when he hyperbolically accuses me of having “blood on my hands.” He still defends his statement that “NATO air raids on Serbia [beginning March 24, 1999] actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo,” and is surprised that I find this untrue — let alone morally unpalatable.

One hesitates to teach logic, let alone linguistics, to the distinguished professor, but his use of the world “precipitate” shifts the blame for the massacres and mass deportations that he admits took place from the actual perpetrators to those who were trying to stop them. (Incidentally, at the time Bogdan Denitch and I called for intervention but also condemned the form of intervention that President Clinton chose — high-level bombing.)

One can certainly accuse the West of neglecting the plight of the Kosovars, but it was Milosevic and his regime that deprived the Kosovars of their rights and then began to kill and deport them. It was that regime that had recently killed up to 8,000 Bosnians at Srebrenica, whose dismembered and reburied bodies are still being found. There was no NATO bombing to blame for that rather shameful inaction.

In fact, faced with that cold-blooded massacre, NATO leaders had every reason to fear the worst in Kosovo.

I would recommend that Chomsky read the judgment of the UN war crimes tribunal, after it had considered the evidence of 113 witnesses for the prosecution and 118 for the defense, not to mention tens of thousands of pages of documents submitted by both sides. It found five Serb officials guilty of the “criminal enterprise” that he attributes to NATO. It concludes that “the direct testimony from many witnesses demonstrates that the Kosovo Albanian population was fleeing from the actions of the forces of the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] and Serbia, rather than the NATO bombing and the KLA.”

For a flourish that should excite some indignation, the report added that “there is no doubt that a clandestine operation consisting of exhuming over 700 bodies originally buried in Kosovo and transferring them to Serbia proper took place during the NATO bombing” and adds that the “great majority of the corpses moved were victims of crime and civilians, including women and children.”

In finding the Serbian officials guilty, the tribunal noted that “the NATO bombing provided an opportunity to the members of the joint criminal enterprise — an opportunity for which they had been waiting and for which they had prepared by moving additional forces to Kosovo and by the arming and disarming process described above — to deal a heavy blow to the KLA and to displace, both within and without Kosovo, enough Kosovo Albanians to change the ethnic balance. And now this could all be done with plausible deniability because it could be blamed not only upon the KLA, but upon NATO as well [italics mine].” The blame-shifting certainly seems to have worked with Chomsky, but the judges looked at the mass of evidence and decided to the contrary.

Chomsky betrays a persistent Manichaean worldview in which the United States is always the source of evil in the world. Even with that in mind he would surely like to reconsider his implied comparison of the United States with Nazis. (“It would be like raising the question of why Nazis didn’t intervene to stop the slaughter of Jews by local forces in the regions they occupied.”)

The United States is often, but not always wrong, and its enemies are sometimes, but not always right. The United States was certainly wrong in East Timor, and indeed in the near contemporary situation in Western Sahara, and I have been reporting on those injustices for many decades. Along with the other members of the Security Council the United States had a clear duty to intervene to assert international law. In the absence of effective international (i.e., U.S.) intervention, the Indonesian military would have been every bit as brutal and aggressive.

We could deplore this intervention as much as we like, but I fail to see what was going to stop Indonesia’s brutality otherwise. Indeed, Chomsky points out that it was Clinton’s intervention that persuaded the Indonesian general’s that the game was up in East Timor. Yes it was long overdue, but it was an American intervention, which deserves some grudging credit. Also, by delegating U.S. forces to the UN on the Macedonian border, the United States successfully prevented yet another former Yugoslav republic being sucked into Milosevic’s bloodstained mire. There are hundreds of thousands of dead Rwandans who would have welcomed a U.S. intervention there.

However, Chomsky takes an absolutist position on intervention in principle, which would have had him picketing the Normandy beaches to stop the war against German workers.

The United States is culpable in many ways over East Timor, but that should not detract from the primary role of the Indonesian government and military. Nor should any person of ethics try to shield the Milosevic regime from its unique culpability for events in Srebrenica and Kosovo. Chomsky’s quasi-theological conception of the United States as the supreme evil power tends to exonerate the less evil powers, turning Ariel Sharon, the Indonesian generals, Milosevic, and the others into mere secondary agents. Meanwhile, condemning in principle any effective action to stop these malign actors actually lends them aid and comfort — while doing nothing for their victims.


“Response to Williams”
By Noam Chomsky
Foreign Policy in Focus, September 1, 2009

Ian Williams angrily denied that “NATO air raids on Serbia [beginning March 24 1999] actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo” and charged that it is deeply immoral for me to say so, “like claiming that the British air raids on Germany precipitated the Nazi gas chambers.” [August 3, 2009, above]

In response [August 17, 2009, above], I asked the obvious question: Why does he issue this quite serious charge against NATO Commander General Wesley Clark and the White House, comparing them to Nazi apologists? The question is quite apt. I quoted Clark’s statement, made to the press a few days after the bombing began, that Serbian atrocities in reaction to the bombing were “entirely predictable,” “fully anticipated,” and “not in any way a concern of the political leadership”; and several weeks earlier to the White House, that if NATO attacked, “almost certainly [Serbia] will attack the civilian population” and NATO will be able to do nothing about it. Thus Clark very explicitly predicted, and the White House recognized, that NATO bombing would precipitate Serbian atrocities — exactly what happened, as the voluminous Western record demonstrates.

In responding [August 21, 2009, above], Williams ignores all of this completely and instead haughtily affirms exactly what I wrote: that the Serbian crimes followed the bombing. Throughout, he pretends not to understand the difference between “perpetrate” and “precipitate” (my accurate paraphrase of Clark’s warning). He writes that the bombing provided “an opportunity” for which Milosevic had been waiting. Perhaps true, but if so that clearly reinforces the conclusion of General Clark and the White House that the NATO bombing would precipitate these crimes, as it did. (I’ll put it aside here because it is irrelevant, but there is a good deal more to say about the nature and timing of the Serbian buildup to which he refers, matters I’ve reviewed elsewhere, relying on the Western records). He writes further that NATO “had every reason to fear the worst in Kosovo,” because of what had happened in Bosnia. It is quite true that NATO had “every reason to fear” the atrocities it regarded as an “entirely predictable” consequence of its bombing — a small fact that Williams omits.

I can only interpret the bluster and evasions as his way of admitting that his charges are groundless, mere slander, and that he recognizes, at some level, his own complicity.

Much more shocking are Williams’ continued efforts to deny U.S.-UK crimes in East Timor. His reference to Bosnia as a justification for bombing Serbia illustrates again the depth of his commitment to denial of Western crimes. As I wrote, the crimes in East Timor — carried out with decisive U.S.-UK support throughout — were vastly greater than anything charged in Bosnia, coming as close to authentic genocide as anything in the modern period. If he means what he is saying, Williams should have been calling for the bombing of Jakarta, Washington, and London as the crimes in East Timor escalated again in 1999, to a level far beyond Kosovo before the NATO bombing, always with firm U.S.-UK support. And as I also pointed out in the article to which Williams is responding, East Timor is only one of many such cases as NATO prepared to bomb Serbia, facts that tell us a lot about the orgy of self-congratulation that accompanied the bombing, part of the hypocrisy about R2P that continues dramatically to the present, one of the topics of the paper of mine to which Williams responds in his curious way.

Williams writes that the United States was “certainly wrong” in failing to intervene to prevent the horrendous Indonesian crimes. That has been the standard line of apologists: We “looked away” instead of intervening to stop the crimes. But as Williams and others who resort to this evasion know very well, the United States and United Kingdom most definitely did not fail to intervene during the quarter-century of Indonesian aggression and atrocities. Rather, they did intervene, and massively: By providing decisive support for these crimes, continuing to do so as the crimes accelerated again in 1999, even after the destruction of Dili in September, which elicited from Clinton’s National Security Adviser Sandy Berger the statement that “I don’t think anybody ever articulated a doctrine which said that we ought to intervene wherever there’s a humanitarian problem” — so therefore the United States and United Kingdom continued their crucial participation.

Even more remarkably, Williams writes that “Chomsky points out that it was Clinton’s intervention that persuaded the Indonesian generals that the game was up in East Timor. Yes it was long overdue, but it was an American intervention, which deserves some grudging credit.”

The intervention Williams praises was Clinton’s termination of U.S. participation in the aggression and atrocities. By Williams’ logic, he should praise Russia for intervening in Afghanistan by withdrawing its troops in 1989. It would be instructive to see if even the most extreme Communist Party loyalist stooped to that.

The nature of his apologetics becomes even clearer when we consider the statement of mine to which he is responding:

To end the atrocities in [East Timor] would not have required bombing, or sanctions, or indeed any act beyond withdrawal of participation. That was demonstrated shortly after Berger’s reaffirmation of Western policy, when, under strong domestic and international pressure, Clinton formally ended US participation. The invaders immediately withdrew, and a UN peacekeeping force was able to enter facing no army. That could have been done any time in the preceding quarter-century. Astonishingly, this horrendous story was soon reinterpreted as vindication of R2P, a reaction so shameful that words fail.

Williams’ reiteration of this shameful stance leaves one truly speechless.

In responding to Williams’ praise for Clinton’s “intervention,” I wrote: “Since Williams favors Holocaust analogies, it would be like raising the question why the Nazis did not intervene to stop the slaughter of Jews by local forces in the regions they occupied.” Williams claims falsely that I was implying a comparison of the United States to the Nazis (the reference, explicitly, is to his stance), and omits the phrase in boldface, which shows that I was borrowing the resort to Nazi analogies from him — and I agree with him that his resort to this practice is objectionable. The analogy referring to his stance is, however, quite accurate, unlike his slanderous Holocaust analogy, which was flatly and unequivocally false.

The rest is an effort to blow smoke that merits no comment. Along with his evasion of everything relevant, it merely underscores the fact that, as I wrote, the blood on his hands is not easy to wish or wash away.