Web Only / Features » July 29, 2008
Gunning for the Prize
An interview with Noam Chomsky
Why don't we apply the Nuremberg principles to ourselves? The question is so deeply hidden that it would be incomprehensible to the educated classes [in America].
Noam Chomsky is one of the world’s most quoted people, but his forceful criticism of U.S. policy has often made him a pariah in U.S. media, which find his views far beyond the bounds of acceptable opinion. Even the liberal American Prospect, before opposition to the Iraq War became widespread, ran the headline, “Between Chomsky and Cheney” on its cover in March 2005.
As he does in this interview, Chomsky consistently steps outside the narrow confines of the conventional Democratic-Republican spectrum. He outlines how the Nuremburg Tribunals following World War II established principles under which U.S. officials – including Bush and Cheney – should be found guilty of war crimes for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and challenges Barack Obama on whether his plan for Iraq will mean a real withdrawal of U.S. forces. And he questions whether elite politicians and media pundits will ever see U.S. foreign policy as anything other than benevolent.
Chomsky’s writings, which include dozens of books on U.S. foreign policy, are notable for his scrutiny of original government source materials, which locates damning admissions about the true goals of U.S. policy, and his careful distinction between the opinions of elite policy-makers and media and those of the majority of Americans.
Although he has stirred up enormous controversies, Chomsky is a soft-spoken, grandfatherly 79-year-old who first rose to prominence as a professor of linguistics at MIT. But during the Vietnam War, he emerged as one of the most provocative voices calling into account the U.S. government and the multinational corporations with which it is so closely aligned.
The conventional wisdom among the policy-making elites and major media is that the U.S. surge in Iraq has been a great success. What do you think of U.S. media coverage of the surge, and what do you think has been missing?
There’s a technical question here: to what extent has the surge affected the situation? One of the central factors in the temporary decline in violence is that the whole ethnic cleansing has reached the point where there are fewer and fewer people to kill. Baghdad has now been divided, if it were rich, into what we would call gated communities. It has been broken down into fairly homogeneous areas, and people of one ethnic-religious background no longer go outside areas where they are safe. So there is less opportunity for the killing that went on before.
The second major factor is Muhktada al-Sadr had declared a freeze, and that his forces would not engage in military action. That’s the second thing.
The third factor is that the tribes, the Sunni tribes in Anbar province, had, before the surge, begun organizing to drive out Al Qaeda of Iraq militants, who were being a disruptive force in terms of tribal customs and controls. Of course, the US is paying for that, for groups like the Awakening. These are tribal groups that the US is now funding.
And that’s laying the basis for a future conflict of very serious magnitude. It’s paving the way for a system of warlords, a bit like Afghanistan. We’re funding an array of forces. They’re happy to be paid, but we’re just adding to the warlord culture. This is one of the consequences of the invasion.
As for the majority of Iraqis, the Pentagon released the results of some focus groups and portrayed them as good news. The Pentagon hailed the results of the focus groups as showing that Iraqis are coming together in reconciliation. They have “shared beliefs.” The results show that what the Iraqis really agreed on is that the sectarian violence is the result of the US invasion. That’s what they agreed on. And they are right. The sectarian violence is the result of the invasion.
But overall, the effect of these factors is a decrease in casualties and probably a temporary decrease in violence.
But the more fundamental question is, why should we be asking these particular questions? Let’s take some enemy, say, Russia and Chechnya. Chechnya doesn’t involve the invasion of a separate country, but it’s horrible enough. The Russians devastated the country, with nobody knows how many casualties and atrocities. The capital Grozny was basically a pile of rubble. But over the last couple months (in early 2008), American reporters have gone there and say the city is booming, it has electricity, building is going on, businesses are opening, there’s little violence. Russians are in the background, but it’s basically a Russian client state nominally run by Chechnyans. Their surge was a success. But do we praise Putin for less violence?
But Iraq is much worse. What are we doing there? We just invaded. While the Chinese can claim Tibet is part of China and the Russians can claim Chechnya, we can’t say that Iraq is part of the US unless we actually claim that we own the world. We just invaded a completely foreign country.
When we look at what the U.S. has done to Iraq it’s an atrocity. What are we doing there? Iraq is much worse than Chechnya. We have gone halfway around the world and destroyed a nation.
If you want to know what is really going on with the surge, one place to look is at The Nation, where there are reports by two reporters who are unusual in that they actually report from Iraq. There are a handful of reporters in the world who actually report from Iraq itself. Patrick Cockburn has been reporting there for years, and Nir Rosen speaks fluent Arabic and can pass for Arab and has been there for five years. They both agree that the U.S. occupation is probably the end of Iraq. They really describe it as a monstrosity. Iraq may never recover. We’ve destroyed the country. It’s like the Mongol invasions in the 13th century.
Most of the educated class has either been killed or fled. The country is an array of militias, of warlords and gangs, of which the US is just the biggest and most powerful militia. They call the Iraqi Army its sub-militia. We’ve just destroyed the country, and it may never recover. So that’s the way that the surge has succeeded.
Lack of ‘principled analysis’
It seems that the Democrats in Congress are looking at this in very different terms, not considering what it has done to Iraq but whether the war is a success in strictly military terms, and that reinforces the Bush framework. By asking “Is the war a success or not,” the Democrats set themselves up for the question, “Are you saying the U.S. is losing?” By not raising moral questions about the U.S. invasion and occupation, it appears that the Democrats are playing into the hands of Bush. What do you think?
I wouldn’t necessarily use the term “moral,” because in the dominant intellectual culture, that can make it sound like some question from outer space. I think we should simply ask if you can find anywhere in the Democratic Party, the candidates, the commentary, or anywhere in the media a principled analysis of the war and occupation of Iraq.
By principled, I have very specific criteria in mind: the principles we would use automatically in the case of an enemy.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, we didn’t ask if it would work and if he would succeed in putting in a puppet government, as Washington feared he might do. No, we didn’t ask that. We took the position that aggression is wrong and that it is worse when it succeeds.
When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, we didn’t say, like Obama on Iraq, that this is a “strategic blunder.” Or like Hillary Clinton, “they’re getting into a civil war they can’t win.” We said it’s aggression, which is a principled position, and we’re capable of saying that when an enemy carries out a crime. It’s wrong even when it succeeds. The question is, are we capable of applying to ourselves the same criteria we apply to others. You can say that’s a moral principle if you like. But it’s so elementary that if we can’t accept it, we might as well admit we are Nazis.
If we apply the same principle to ourselves, if the surge succeeds, it’s just a worse crime. But you can hardly find a principled critique. Try and find one. Can you find anywhere among the candidates, the commentary, the Congress a principled criticism of the invasion? The Democrats have no principled critique. So therefore they are reduced to asking the same questions about Iraq that the Communist Party of the old Soviet Union would have had in 1985 about Afghanistan.
The Soviet hawks said that we can win if we put in more resources, and the doves said it wasn’t working too well, costing too much and we ought to get out of Afghanistan. We have total contempt for that kind of thinking, because we can view others in a principled way.
We can view the actions of others in terms of the principle we claim to uphold, but not our own actions.
If you look at the Democratic Party, they’re not talking about really ending the war but ‘re-missioning,’ as General Kevin Ryan put it.
The same is true of the Indochina Wars, and you’d think that would be far enough back in history to allow a principled critique. Try to find a principled critique of the U.S. invasion in South Vietnam. It’s not there in the mainstream.
Was it a lost cause from the beginning? Was it costing too much? That’s the doves. Then the hawks say that if we had kept at it, with a better strategy and a stronger South Vietnamese Army, we would have won. Or the critics were stabbing us in the back by saying it cost too much.
I’m sure you heard things like that in Nazi Germany in 1943. You know, “Did we undertake too much by fighting on two fronts?” or the critics are “stabbing us in the back.”
But we’ve got to remember the distinction between elite opinion, which is very narrow, and the public’s opinion. Whereas there was no principled opposition to the Vietnam War to speak of among American elites, the population was quite different from the elite. By the war’s end, 70 percent of the U.S. population described the war as fundamentally “wrong and immoral,” not a “mistake.” That figure remained roughly constant until the most recent polls a few years ago.
Iraqi Army’s setback in Basra: a Tet offensive moment?
In terms of elite opinion and how they interpreted the Iraq government’s military setback in Basra [where in early April 1,000 Iraqi troops and police quickly deserted and some joined al-Sadr’s militias, U.S. air support was required], do you think it was anything like a Tet offensive moment, where leading policy makers and media figures in the U.S. recognize that the war is unwinnable and too costly?
I don’t think it was anything like the Tet offensive [when National Liberation Front forces in South Vietnam launched a surprise offensive in 1968, seizing dozens of cities and attacking the U.S. Embassy for several days]. It could never be interpreted sensibly in the U.S. and has been kind of wiped out of history. What happened with the Tet offensive, there was no historical parallel…
…I can”t think of any popular uprising against an invasion that comes close to Tet. Yet you can’t discuss it in those terms in the United States. The only question asked was, did the U.S. succeed?
The real issue is what it means to have a population so organized to such an extent against an overwhelming military force. Well, U.S. business leaders could figure it out for themselves, and Tet did make them understand.
There was another factor: the U.S. had pretty much accomplished its mission. Contrary to Iraq, the U.S. didn’t need to conquer Vietnam because of its resources or strategic position or anything like that. But they wanted to ensure that it didn’t create a model of successful independence for, say, Indonesia, which did matter, or for other nations of South Asia, including ultimately Japan, the super-domino, as it was called by Asia historian John Dower…
So the other “dominoes” were already protected? [U.S. policymakers defended the war in Vietnam with the “domino theory,” whereby stopping the insurgency in Vietnam was called vital to prevent the rest of Asia from “going Communist.]
The domino theory is constantly revived because it is correct. People ridicule it, but they’re ridiculing the public version designed to frighten people. The public version is that Ho Chi Minh or Daniel Ortega [Sandinista leader of Nicaragua] or someone is going march on the U.S. and rape your grandmother. That’s the public version.
But the domino theory does apply to independent nationalism, which Henry Kissinger called a “virus” that can infect others, leading them to be independent of the U.S., so you’ve got to watch out. Independent or “radical” nationalism means that they don’t follow our orders. So independent nationalism must be stamped out. That’s the rational version of the domino theory. It’s the basis for almost every intervention.
Now Iraq is totally different. You can’t destroy it [in terms of oil resources], it’s much too valuable. Iraq is a prize, much too valuable to be just an example. It is to be a client state in the world’s oil producing region. Iraq has maybe the world’s second-largest oil reserves in the world. It’s a real prize, totally different than Vietnam. Pulling out would be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy. That’s why neither of the political parties is seriously contemplating it.
Vietnam was an entirely different matter than Iraq. And the American business community understands that too.
With Iraq, the reasons have been clearly stated, but you don’t find discussion of this in the press. It’s there if you take a look at the Bush-Maliki Declaration of November. Maliki is the prime minister of Iraq even though he doesn’t rule much beyond the Green Zone. Patrick Cockburn describes Maliki’s government as “universally loathed.”
The agreement is an interesting one. It essentially says that the U.S. can maintain a military presence there as long as it wants, including the military bases, huge ones. They aren’t built to be dismantled. It includes what’s called an embassy in Baghdad, which is actually a city inside a city. That also is not being built to be dismantled. The U.S. forces are to be there indefinitely, protecting Iraq from external aggression and insuring its internal security. Well, the only threat of external aggression is from the United States, except for maybe Israel, but that’s not what they meant. “Internal security” means maintaining a client state like Russia in Chechnya.
If a government happens to get in that asks the U.S. to leave, the U.S. will still stay to protect internal security, and you know what that means. The agreement goes on to say, rather brazenly, that the economy must be open to foreign investment, privileging U.S. investors. [Editor’s note: Exxon, Mobil, Total and BP are now negotiating for no-bid concessions on Iraqi oil.] A pretty brazen statement of imperial goals. What they’re saying is that you have to let outside powers exploit your resources, with the U.S. in the lead. Now that’s a more extreme criticism of the U.S. invasion than the anti-war movement produced, and it’s coming from the White House.
In fact, Bush underscored it in January with one of his famous signing statements. Bush said that he won’t accept any legislation that bans a permanent US military presence in Iraq or constrains U.S. exploitation of resources. No more debate…
[Editor’s note: However, there are growing signs of powerful Iraqi opposition to U.S. presence beyond Dec. 31.]
Will Democrats end the war?
Q. If Barack Obama wins the presidential election, where will we wind up in Iraq? [Obama supports “withdrawal,” but wants to carry on diplomatic and humanitarian functions, plus enough forces to guard them, plus an embassy the size of the Vatican City, the Baghdad airport, and U.S. bases.] In effect, Democrats are talking about a pretty considerable force remaining, are they not?
Their proposals are pretty vague, but pretty much like the Democratic proposal passed a year ago by Congress. It was analyzed by a U.S. general, Kevin Ryan. He called that essentially a “re-missioning” of the war, [not a withdrawal].
One of the issues you talk about considerably in Failed States, Perilous Power, and What We Say Goes is that there are some taboo topics in the U.S. media regarding the Iraq War. One of the them is the toll of Iraqi civilians caused by the U.S. occupations, estimated at around one million by the Opinion Research Business’ survey of households.
The most recent estimate I’ve seen is about 1.03 million extra deaths in Iraq, by what are probably conservative estimates because of areas where the pollsters couldn’t go.
“How many were killed?” is the wrong question. When we talk about our enemies, we ask, “How many have died for which they are responsible? How many are dead due to things like starvation that they caused?” But the media aren’t looking at that in Iraq.
For someone like Pol Pot, we would be asking how many have died because of his policies.
Another taboo topic is public opinion in Iraq, which is something that you have studied a lot in terms of polling results. [The unpopularity of the U.S. and its troops reached 90 percent in 2004 among Iraqis, as Chomsky notes in Failed States]. Why are these taboo topics?
What we should ask is, should Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz be put on trial for war crimes?
Why not? The Iraqis seem to think so. The Iraqis believe that the U.S. is responsible for the sectarian violence and atrocities, and that it should get out. That means that the Iraqis are following the principles of the Nuremberg judgment.
We hanged Nazis as war criminals on the basis of their aggression. Aggression is called the “supreme international crime,” encompassing all that follows. Therefore, why don’t we apply the Nuremberg principles to ourselves? The question is so deeply hidden that it would be incomprehensible to the educated classes [in America].
To answer your question: George Orwell gave the basic explanation in the unpublished introduction to Animal Farm that was found in his papers after his death. He writes that the book satirizes totalitarian societies, but that his readers should recognize that in free England, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. That results in part from the fact that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And in part because if you’re well educated, you have instilled in you an unquestioning acceptance of the words of the powerful. Oversimplified, but essentially accurate.[Editor’s note: This interview took place April 8, 2008.]
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.