THE HINDU Vol16 No. 01 - VK Ramachandran
Oct 13, 2001 04:01 AM
India's National Magazine
>From the publishers of THE HINDU
Vol. 16 :: No. 01 :: Jan. 02 - 15, 1999
'This action is a call for a lawless world in which the powerful will
Interview with Noam Chomsky.
Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, is the founder of modern linguistic science and one of the
most important academic-intellectual figures of the post-War world. He
is also perhaps the most radical critic of post-War United States
foreign policy, one whose fearless criticism has always been supported
by detailed documentation and analysis.
In this telephone interview with V.K. Ramachandran from his home in
Massachusetts, Chomsky speaks in detail on the armed attack by the
United States and Britain on Iraq and on the strategic background to
U.S. policy towards Iraq. He characterises the bombing of Iraq as a war
Frontline: The United States has said that it bombed Iraq because it
produces weapons of mass destruction, it constitutes a special threat to
its neighbours and the world, particularly because of its leader, and it
refused to cooperate with UNSCOM. Would you comment on that
justification for its latest military action and on the legality of that
Noam Chomsky: I agree that Saddam Hussein is a great danger to everyone
within his reach, just as he was in the 1980s, when his worst crimes
were committed. It is, however, elementary logic that that cannot be the
reason why the U.S. and Britain are opposing him. His war crimes were
committed with the strong support of the United States and Britain, even
after the invasion of Kuwait. Furthermore, the United States turned
immediately to direct support for Saddam Hussein in March 1991, when he
suppressed an uprising in the South that might have overthrown his rule.
As for his weapons of mass destruction, although that threat is also
real, Iraq is by no means the only country with such weapons. You do not
have to go very far from Iraq in either direction to find other examples
of such countries, and the major powers are, of course, the worst threat
in this respect. But even if we simply focus on Iraq, the bombing cannot
have anything to do with limiting weapons of mass destruction, because
the fact is that the bombing will very likely enhance those programmes.
The only restriction that has existed - and it has been an effective
restriction - is the regular inspection. The nuclear weapons programme
has apparently been reduced to nothing or very little because of the
inspections. UNSCOM inspectors have undoubtedly been impeded, but have
nevertheless severely limited Iraq's weapons development capacity and
have destroyed plenty of weapons. It is generally assumed, by the U.S.
as well, that UNSCOM's efforts will either be terminated or marginalised
very much as a result of the bombing. So that cannot be the reason for
Although I agree that Saddam Hussein remains a serious threat to peace,
there happens to be a way to deal with that question, one that has been
established under international law. That procedure is the foundation of
international law and international order and is also the supreme law of
the land in the United States. If a country, say the United States,
feels that a threat is posed to peace, it is to approach the Security
Council, which has the sole authority to react to that threat. The
Security Council is required to pursue all peaceful means to deal with
the threat to peace, and if it determines that all such means have
failed, it may then specifically authorise the use of force. Nothing
else is permitted under international law, except with regard to the
question, here irrelevant, of self-defence.
The U.S. and Britain have simply announced, very clearly and loudly,
that they are violent criminal states that are intent on destroying
totally the fabric of international law, a fabric that has been built up
laboriously over many years. They have announced that they will do as
they please and will use violence as they please, independently of what
anyone else thinks. In my view, that is the sole significance of the
bombing and is probably the reason for it.
Even the timing of the bombing was chosen so as to make this position
very evident. The bombing began at exactly 5 p.m. EST in the U.S., just
as the Security Council was opening an emergency session to deal with
the emerging crisis in Iraq. The U.S. chose that moment to launch a war
crime - an aggressive illegal act of force - against Iraq without even
notifying the Council. That was surely intended and understood to be a
message of contempt for the Security Council. It is in fact another
underscoring of the lesson of the Gulf war, which was explained very
clearly by George Bush when missiles were falling on Baghdad. At that
time, he announced his famous New World Order in four simple words -
"What we say, goes." And if you don't like it, get out of the way.
The more ominous aspect of this situation is that it proceeds - in the
U.S. completely and in Britain to a large extent - not only without any
criticism but without public awareness about it. I have yet to find a
single word in the mainstream media or in other discussion in educated
sectors suggesting that it might be a good idea for the U.S. to observe
the principles of international domestic law. If this question is ever
raised, and that happens only at the margins, it is dismissed as a
technicality. It may be a technicality for a criminal state but for
others it is not a technicality, any more than a law against homicide is
This action is in fact a call for a lawless world in which the powerful
will rule. The powerful happen to be the United States and Britain,
which is by now a pathetic puppy dog that has abandoned any pretence of
being an independent state.
This time the declared objectives of the attack were open-ended - "to
degrade Iraqi facilities" and send "a powerful message" to Saddam
Hussein. The attack also came with the warning that the U.S. had, in
certain circumstances, the authority to bomb Iraq "without delay,
diplomacy or warning''.
The declared aim to "degrade facilities" was designed purposely to
indicate that it is irrelevant. There is no measure of whether you have
succeeded in "degrading facilities". If you shoot a pistol at one
building, you have degraded the facilities. That is a meaningless war
aim and was understood to be so, which means that it was not the war aim
at all. You cannot have a meaningless war aim when you carry out an act
The warning you mentioned reiterates the real message: the United States
is determining, not for the first time, that it has the right to use
force as it wishes. Nothing new about that, but it is now being declared
in an unusually brazen form and with the total acquiescence of the
doctrinal system of educated sectors.
I am sure that the message is being understood where it is being sent;
in my opinion, the message is being sent largely to the states of the
There are background issues here that are undoubtedly decisive. It is
obvious to everyone that the main concern of external powers in West
Asia is oil, or energy production. In the first place, there is now a
consensus among geologists that the world may be heading for a serious
oil crisis. In spite of new technology and deep-sea drilling, the rate
of discovery of oil has been declining from about the 1960s. It is
expected that within a decade or two, the magic halfway mark - or the
destruction of half the world's known exploitable hydrocarbon energy
resources - will be reached, and after that the way is downhill.
Secondly, the rate of use of oil is accelerating. Close to half of the
total use of oil in history has been in the last 20 years, that is,
after the oil price rise.
The third crucial point is that a very substantial part of the world's
oil resources is in the Arabian peninsula-Persian Gulf region. The
resources that exist elsewhere are nowhere near as abundant or as
exploitable. The share of West Asian oil in total world production is
getting back to what it was in about 1970, and that share will increase.
That means that the importance of the region as a strategic centre and
as a lever of control over world affairs is increasing. It is a very
volatile region, very heavily armed, with many conflicts and with most
of its population brutally suppressed in one way or another. For the
last 50 years, the U.S. has been determined to run that region with the
assistance of Britain. Nobody else, particularly the people of the
region, is supposed to have any significant role there. All this makes
for a highly inflammatory situation.
The current alliance system to control West Asian oil in the interests
of the United States includes a very visible Turkish-Israel alliance,
and also includes the Palestinian Authority. What is called the "peace
process" in West Asia is an effort by the United States and Israel to
eliminate the Palestinian problem by imposing a kind of a Bantustan
settlement on the Palestinian people. In this the Palestinian Authority
has the role of controlling and suppressing the Palestinian people in
the manner of the leadership elements in countries such as Transkei
under apartheid. The Central Intelligence Agency is directly and openly
involved in Palestinian-Israel interactions.
The other countries of the region do not like this arrangement, and
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria have been taking steps towards a
kind of alignment that would counter it. The U.S. is very concerned,
especially about a developing relationship between Saudi Arabia and
Iran, countries that have historically been enemies but have been making
very notable steps towards rapprochement.
It is worth remembering that the U.S. is isolated internationally not
only on the issue of Iraq but also on the issue of Iran. There is a
growing conflict between the U.S. and Europe about bringing Iran back
into the international system. While Europe and Japan are strongly in
favour of doing so, the U.S. is opposed, and if Saudi Arabia, the Gulf
Emirates and Egypt improve their relationship with Iran, the prospect is
a threatening one for the United States. The use of force and violence
is intended as a warning to these countries that they should not proceed
too far because the United States will act with extreme violence if it
has to. In my opinion, the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan a few months
ago - Sudan was the more blatant war crime - was probably intended to
send the same message.
Early this year a high-level planning document was released through the
Freedom of Information Act, one that got no publicity here but was very
interesting. It was a secret 1995 study of the Strategic Command of the
United States, which is responsible for the nuclear arsenal. The study
is called "Essentials of Post Cold War Deterrence". Do you remember
Nixon's "Madman theory", which suggested the U.S. should appear like a
mad man who fights everyone? This document resurrects that theory and
says that the U.S.
should use its nuclear arsenal to portray itself as irrational and
vindictive if its vital interests are attacked. That should be part of
the national persona we project to all adversaries. It hurts to portray
ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some
elements of the U.S. government may appear to be out of control can be
beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts in the minds of
an adversary's decision-makers.
The Nixon theory was sort of informal, but remember that this is an
official planning document of the Strategic Command in 1995. I think the
press knew what it was doing when it basically kept it secret. The
document is, after all, rather revealing and it provides interesting
background to the current actions.
It is interesting that this time the United States failed to muster even
the support it did last time in the United Nations.
If you look back to those months of negotiations, Germany and Japan were
at first opposed to military action. Their arms were gradually twisted
and they went along, but never participated. The most they were willing
to do was to pay for the action. The attitudes of the states of the
region were very mixed. These really had their arms twisted (Yemen, for
example, was threatened with serious economic sanctions if it did no got
along). Finally, there was a vote, but it was an unclear vote and,
incidentally, an illegal vote, because China abstained, and support for
the use of force has to be unanimous in the Security Council.
So although there was a kind of support, a good bit of the world knew
that they were being dragged into conflict and that there still were
opportunities for a negotiated settlement that the U.S. was trying to
avoid. Every successive action has cut down that support even more: at
present, Saudi Arabia will not permit U.S. planes to base there to fly
missions and this time even Kuwait would not support the U.S. action.
The people of the region, of course, are always opposed to U.S. policy -
that was true in 1991 too.
And Secretary-General Kofi Annan has played a far more positive role on
the question of Iraq than Perez de Cuellar did in 1991.
Kofi Annan is barely quoted in the U.S. - you just find a few sentences
here and there. The message, however, is clear enough; he called it a
"sad day" for the United Nations and for the world. He is being
bypassed; the United States does not want the United Nations to become
involved because it knows that it cannot get support there. As I said,
even the timing of the bombing was a slap in the face for Kofi Annan and
the United Nations.
It now appears - we can't be certain - that Richard Butler sent his
report directly to the White House before it was sent to the Security
Council. There are also reports from anonymous high-level officials in
the United Nations that the Report was written in connection with the
White House (although I do not know about that). The Clinton
administration has announced officially that it began the planning for
the bombing before the U.N. session because it already had the Report,
which, of course, is completely improper and underscores the fact that
the leadership of UNSCOM is working with the Clinton administration.
Would you discuss another aspect of the timing of the attack, that is,
the widespread conviction that President Clinton attacked Iraq now
because of the impeachment proceedings against him?
That is very widely held; I think it is very implausible.
If you think about it, the coincidence of timing only harms Clinton and
undermines his credibility further. His credibility is low, and to use
this action as an attempt to delay the impeachment hearings by a day
simply makes him look ridiculous.
On the other hand, there is one noteworthy feature of the coincidence of
timing. The House debate on impeachment has been totally cynical on both
sides, and Republicans and Democrats are making it very clear that there
is no issue of principle involved at all. That is clear from the fact
that the vote is on pure party lines. On issues of principle, you cannot
get a clear division between Democrats and Republicans. That is
outlandish, since they are more or less identical on most issues, and no
issue of principle is ever going to divide them right down the line.
The Democrats are using the coincidence of timing in order to build up
future political campaigns. In the next campaign they will take the line
that when our brave sons and daughters put their lives on the line to
defend the country, the evil Republicans attacked the
The coincidence of timing, then, is harmful to Clinton personally but it
could be helpful to the public relations efforts of the Democratic
After the cessation of bombing there have been statements to the effect
that, on the one hand, the U.S. reserves the right to strike again at
any time and, on the other hand, that the next phase is very much a
The U.S. is simply saying that as far as it is concerned, all options
are open, and nothing else matters - not international law, not the
World Court, not the United Nations, and not the opinions of the
countries and peoples of the region. If our purposes can be served by
diplomacy, we will use diplomacy; if they can be served by force, we
will use force.
The attacks have shattered Iraq's infrastructure further. It is clear
that the recent economic history of Iraq is one of a human development
disaster and profound regression in areas of earlier achievement, such
as health, nutrition and education. Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright has been reported as saying that the U.S. "completely disowns"
any responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi
children and Tony Blair has said that "nutritional problems" - that is a
quote - in Iraq are not the result of sanctions. Would you comment on
this? In your perception, how long will sanctions last?
Every time Tony Blair opens his mouth, he looks more disgusting and
ridiculous, and his performance marked a painful and shameful day in the
history of Britain. As for Madeleine Albright, her comments over the
years have captured very clearly the moral level of U.S. actions. In
1996, an interviewer on "60 Minutes" on national television asked her
for her reaction to reports from the United Nations that half a million
Iraqi children had died from the sanctions. Her answer was, "Well, this
is a price that we feel that we are willing to pay." So we - we - are
willing to pay the price of dead Iraqi children. We do not care if we
carry out mass slaughter; the deaths could, I think, properly be called
a form of genocide.
Take a look at the situation right now. There is a temporary oil glut
and prices are very low, and that is harmful to the big energy
companies, which are overwhelmingly U.S. and British. The U.S. Gover
nment does not want the price to go any lower, because its economy
relies quite heavily on recycling petrodollars from other countries.
These go to U.S. treasury securities, arms purchases, construction
projects and so on. The U.S. will be happy for oil prices to go up and
does not want Iraqi oil on the market right now. They are hence quite
happy to bomb a refinery in Basra and hold back oil exports.
Furthermore, Iraq will be brought back into the system sooner or later.
Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world and as an oil
shortage develops and prices begin to rise, the U.S. and Britain will
bring Iraq back into the market. They do, however, have a problem.
Because of the events of the past years, their competitors France and
Russia (and also Italy) now have an inside track on Iraqi oil
production. The U.S. and Britain are not going to tolerate that, since
Iraq is much too rich to allow it to fall into the hands of competitors.
That will take some complicated manoeuvring: the U.S. and Britain have
enough force to achieve their ends, but it won't be easy. That is
another potential conflict between the U.S. and the European Union.
(When I speak of the E.U., I exclude Britain, which is a client of the
Putting that relatively long-term issue aside, how long will the
sanctions go on? As long as the U.S. and Britain insist that the Iraqi
people be punished and that Iraqi oil be kept off the market, and as
long as they are so powerful in the world that other forces cannot
The official version appears to be that sanctions are in place because
Iraq is not cooperating with UNSCOM.
That is the pretext, but that is a joke. The U.S. does not cooperate
with international law. Are they therefore proposing sanctions against
The relative insensitivity of U.S. public opinion towards suffering in
Iraq has been quite extraordinary. The U.S. line on Iraq, after all,
does not play in any other part of the world.
For one thing, the U.S. public does not know much about it. The picture
that is presented is that Saddam Hussein is the worst person since
Attila the Hun. If you asked the person on the street, the reaction
would be that he is torturing his people and the U.S. is trying to get
rid of him in every way it can in order to save the people of Iraq. And
if people are being killed, that's Saddam Hussein's fault: why doesn't
he do what we tell him?
On the other hand, there are lots of actions all over the place. They
are small and disorganised but there is quite a lot of protest action.
This is by no means the only human development catastrophe that does not
arouse attention here. During the 1980s, about a million and a half
people were killed by the South African authorities, backed by the U.S.
and Britain, in surrounding countries. Today, one of the worst human
development catastrophes in history is taking place in Russia. Who knows
how many millions of people have died as a result of the imposition of
the market regime? People do not care about that either. Since U.S.
policy is by definition benevolent, if millions of people are dying in
Russia because of the imposition of market rule, it must be their fault.
The U.S. has now offered to "strengthen its engagement with the Iraqi
opposition". Do you consider this to be part of the larger strategic
objective of which you spoke?
I would be very careful about that. The U.S. has been strongly opposed
to the Iraqi opposition. In 1988, when Saddam Hussein was a great friend
and ally, the U.S. blocked any criticism of the gas attacks. At that
point, according to Iraqi opposition leaders to whom I have spoken,
Secretary of State George Schultz ordered U.S. diplomats not to have any
contacts with Iraqi dissidents because that might bother their friend
Saddam Hussein. These orders remained in place and were formally and
publicly reiterated in March 1991 - that is, after the Gulf war - while
the U.S. was backing Saddam Hussein's massacre of the Shi'ites in the
south of Iraq.
The U.S. has sought to work with the military elements of the Iraqi
opposition. The idea has been that there should be a military coup that
would replace Saddam Hussein with a more or less equivalent regime but
without Saddam Hussein. Those efforts have been penetrated by Iraqi
intelligence and have failed.
The democratic Iraqi opposition itself claims to this day that it has
been receiving essentially no support from the United States. That was
pretty much conceded by Secretary Albright just two days ago. When asked
about this matter she said: "We have now come to the determination that
the Iraqi people would benefit if they had a government that really
represented them." She said this in December 1998, when the U.S.
suddenly had a religious conversion and decided that Iraqis would
benefit if they had a government that represented them. That means that
until now the U.S. did not take that position - which is correct. Until
now, the position has been that the Iraqi people have to be controlled
by an iron-fisted military junta, without Saddam Hussein if possible,
since he is an embarrassment.
But shall we take Secretary Albright at her word today, has the
religious conversion taken place? No, it is very unlikely that anything
has changed except tactics. The U.S. government does not want a
democratic opposition to gain power in Iraq any more than it would want
such an event to occur in Saudi Arabia. No, it wants these countries to
be ruled by dictatorships that are under U.S. influence.
There is a lot to criticise in the Iraqi democratic opposition, but part
of the reason why they are so fragmented and at odds with each other is
that they just do not get support from the outside. That should not
surprise us: where in the world does the U.S. support the democratic
opposition? We know how it acts in Central America and in Africa - why
should it be different in Iraq?
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