Three ZNet Forum Messages from Noam Chomsky
Regarding the Iraq Bombing and Subsequent Issues
Reply from NC, on pacifism, war, world policeman, and "the consequences of leaving Saddam alone." "Can pacifism ever condone war?"
On the last question, it depends on what one means by "pacifism." The War Resisters League would say "No," and membership is contingent on that belief. Others who call themselves "pacifists" take more modulated stands.
If you're asking for my opinion, I am skeptical about absolute moral stands on just about anything. Morality isn't a consistent axiom system; life's too complex, values conflict, and we don't understand anywhere near enough about ourselves, the world, or anything relevant. I think the fundamental principles of international law have merit; in particular, that there is a right of self-defense against armed attack. That's war, but could be justified. Sometimes initiating war could be justified, I think. E.g., I think a case could be made that the US should have threatened, maybe undertaken, war against the Nazis. But it isn't easy to find actual historical examples (the one just mentioned isn't a historical example). One has to consider cases in their own terms, which vary in innumerable ways.
In the case of the war declared by Nazi Germany against the US in 1941, my opinion then was that it was right for the US to join the war against the Nazis, and that a lot should have been done much earlier. But I was 13 years old at the time, so the judgment shouldn't be taken too seriously. In retrospect, I think it was basically right, though there are many questions, particularly about the Pacific war and its backgrounds. I've written about that, 30 years ago, if you are interested.
On self-designated "world policemen," we have plenty of historical evidence, and I don't think there can be much doubt what it reveals. Every murderous and violent action that I can call up in memory has been justified by the highest moral principles, from Yahweh's genocidal commands, to preserving civilization from the Jewish-Bolshevik threat, to protecting the world by slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people in Central America, and on and on, until this moment. Sometimes military intervention by a self-designated policeman happens, incidentally, to have beneficial effects: the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that overthrew Pol Pot is perhaps the most salient example, but the reason wasn't humanitarianism and it's well to remember that the official "world policeman" bitterly condemned Vietnam's criminal overthrow of Pol Pot and exploited it as an opportunity to intensify the punishment of Vietnamese (and to support Pol Pot). In any specific case, one would want to see a very strong argument that the quite consistent historical pattern is being broken.
What are the consequences of leaving Saddam alone? We can begin by asking what would have been the consequences of leaving him alone in the past, for example in the 1980s, when the "world policeman" eagerly supported him during his most horrendous crimes. Those who tried to publicize and protest that support were mostly silenced in the media and political culture, but they were right: it would have been much better to "leave Saddam alone" by withdrawing US support for his crimes -- by far the worst he has so far committed. How about now? Recent policy, quite predictably, strengthens Saddam while imposing a horrendous cost on Iraqis. That includes the latest bombings. The question of what actions should be taken in the case of Saddam and numerous other monsters is complex, but cannot even be raised until we determine to whom the question is addressed: Who is supposed to take the actions? For what purposes? Then we can ask what the actions might be.
Reply from NC, to Steve, on "what realistic options exist for addressing the threat which Saddam Hussein presents." And if "the Iraqi government's ability to create mayhem" is what "is behind much of the existing popular support for the US/UK military actions," then couldn't critics of US policy gain a wider audience "by addressing this concern directly"?
First, is it Saddam's "ability to create mayhem" that lies behind popular support for US/UK bombing? I don't think the question can be answered as posed. In a narrow sense it is true: the public is deluged with hair-raising stories about Saddam's ability to create mayhem, from sources that -- demonstrably -- do not care much about this. Demonstrably, because they supported Saddam while he exercised that ability, and in the case of the media, consciously suppressed that support. If we want to understand what is happening, we cannot follow the consistent (and understandable) practice of the media and commentators and suppress the not-irrelevant fact that the US supported Saddam through his worst crimes, which were pre-August 1990, and returned to support for their old friend as he undertook another campaign of vast slaughter in March 1991 to suppress a popular rebellion to which the US was opposed. Nor can we overlook the fact that the media and intellectual opinion generally cooperated all the way. Accordingly, there was no popular support for impeding Saddam's "ability to create mayhem" during the period when he was most viciously using that ability, and impeding him would have been quite simple: stop supporting him and make public the facts. Nor could there have been such popular support, because people knew little about it, thanks to the performance of those who now claim to be appalled by the crimes they were supporting and keeping under cover.
Second, if we want to develop "realistic options" we have to begin by determining: "options for whom?" For you and me, for the US government, for the Security Council? It makes a difference. The people of the region regard Saddam as one of many threats. Others include Israel, Turkey, Iran, the US/UK -- depends on who you ask. It's no secret that the US/UK actions are overwhelmingly opposed in the region, and that they had to be carried out in blatant violation of law because even the UN Security Council strongly opposed them. That Saddam is a murderous and dangerous thug is not in question; he's one among all too many. There's every likelihood that the sanctions regime has increased the threat he poses, not only by strengthening his hold over Iraq society but also by creating a mood of desperation and vengefulness and irrationality, which could have ominous consequences. Such matters as these have to be addressed before options are proposed: specifically, options for whom to undertake?
There's another consideration worth keeping in mind. If a country has a functioning infrastructure (educational, scientific, manufacturing, etc.) and is not utterly impoverished, it can produce weapons of mass destruction, and if sufficiently desperate, may use them. So if inspectors and bombers could eliminate every last pistol and bullet in Iraq, it would have essentially no effect on development of weapons of mass destruction, unless the country is near-totally destroyed. The US has to the capacity to do that, but won't use it, for one reason because it hopes to gain control of Iraq's extraordinary oil wealth when supplies begin to decline and prices begin to rise.
My own opinion is pretty much as expressed in my last article on this in Z, last February. As I've thought and written for years, I think it is completely wrong for the US to have opposed the Iraqi democratic opposition -- just as it dismissed popular forces anywhere in the region, except when they can be mobilized for some specific power interest. You may have noticed one of Secretary of State Albright's recent pronouncements: that now, in December 1998, "we have come to the determination that the Iraqi people would benefit if they had a government that really represented them." Even if one can take the sudden religious conversion seriously, it's clear enough what it implies about what preceded -- something that editorial writers and commentators are not exactly trumpeting. Suppose US policy really were to shift radically, and a more democratic and popular alternative would be tolerable? Then serious questions arise. To propose something meaningful -- not just slogans that might garner some support -- we'd have to look carefully at what these forces are, what they intend, how one or another faction might be helped, etc. Those are not easy questions. I don't know enough to offer concrete proposals, except pretty hesitantly, and haven't come across others. I mentioned in the Z article some of the proposals of the Iraqi opposition. I think they should be taken seriously -- evaluated, considered, spelled out if they point in reasonable directions, modified or changed if not. That seems to me the best starting point, at least. In the US, the far right has offered some (mostly grandstanding) support, but rarely other elite elements.
Easy answers aren't going to be available. It's not an easy case like, say, Suharto, or probably Saddam in the '80s, when withdrawal of US support for major atrocities could well have been enough to bring them to an end. I agree with you that it's not easy to counter jingoist propaganda and massive suppression of crucial realities with truth and honesty. But I wouldn't recommend other means.
Reply from NC, unidentified, about "alternative solutions" to deal with Saddam Hussein.
You mention my observation that "before the 1991 war, one solution may have been to accept Saddam's offer to hold meaningful talks regarding the Palistinian/Israel conflict in exchange for withdrawing from Kuwait." That's accurate, but not useful here: that observation had to do with the specific situation from August 1990 to January 1991, when the US was desperately seeking to avoid the "nightmare scenario" it envisaged, that Saddam would withdraw from Kuwait leaving a puppet regime in place, in essence duplicating what the US had just done in Panama. The press cooperated by suppressing the negotiations options, and they have now virtually been written out of history. But that was a specific situation, during that period. Since January 1991, the issues are different: not withdrawal from Kuwait, but termination of weapons programs.
You note correctly that I've said that "a good place to start for addressing the current situation is with the UN and the UN Charter," and you add, again correctly, that "the latter can't be the only solution, because as I understand it, the murderous sanctions being imposed on the Iraqi people are warranted by the UN" (and in response to your query, they don't violate the Charter).
It is worth thinking through all of this clearly: plenty of lives are at stake.
Both of your statements are correct: we should start with the framework of international law and obligations, but not end there. No contradiction in that. Rather, that's the general condition.
Suppose we then begin with the UN and the Charter and look at the qualms you raise: the sanctions. That's under debate at the Security Council right now. Were it to come to a vote at the Security Council, the sanctions regime would be weakened significantly; there's little doubt of that. It won't happen, because the US would veto it; that's been made explicit. We therefore have a simple and straightforward solution to the question you raise, one that is conservative, minimal, involves no change of institutions, etc.: get the US to change its adamant refusal to maintain harsh sanctions. If that's too hard for us to try to do, then we should put aside all pretenses, and concede that we just don't want to lift a finger to do anything.
There's a lot of discussion going on, here too, about how we can contain Hussein, but in this case it's a matter of how we contain Washington. Let me stress the obvious once again: unless we are willing to undertake that task, the rest of the talk is just diversion and deception, of ourselves and others.
I think you go off track, frankly, by turning immediately to two other issues rather than the immediate practical matter of saving many Iraqi lives by bringing about a change in US policy, namely the following:
"(1) are sanctions such as those being imposed on Iraq ever justifiable? (2) do you have in mind any alternative, justifiable solutions for dealing with Saddam, [assuming that we want to] erode Saddam's capacity to have nuclear and biological weapons, which I'm not sure to what extent you would agree with in the first place"?
As for (1), it is too abstract to discuss seriously; sanctions against Hitler, for example, would have been more than justifiable. There's a tendency, unfortunate in my opinion, to move from concrete practical issues to questions of abstract principle that can't be dealt with seriously. True, actions on concrete practical issues should be guided by principle, formulated as clearly as we can. And it's a matter of judgment whether the practical issues or the clarification of principles is more important. It's common, and unfortunate, to focus on the principles, at a level of abstraction at which there will be no answers, rather than face the tasks at hand: in this case, to modify US policy. Note again that that is always the easiest task for us: if we don't want to deal with it, we're saying we don't want to do anything relevant.
As for (2), I'd certainly want to "erode X's capacity to have nuclear and biological weapons," where X = Saddam, or anyone else. In the case of Saddam, it is particularly dangerous, because he is an unusually dangerous figure and -- probably like other Iraqi military and elite elements by now -- has very likely been driven to extreme levels of vindictiveness and desperation, always a dangerous mix. On how to proceed, perhaps I can just refer to other comments in this set, stressing again two elementary facts: (1) before we offer answers, we have to decide to whom the advice is addressed -- not a trivial matter, but plainly a prerequisite; (2) unless we are willing to confront US policy, then we might as well admit that we are not willing to go beyond empty talk.
Again, these are very important issues. It's worth thinking seriously and carefully about them. Slogans are easy, and are good business for intellectuals who want to strike impressive poses on TV or at literary cocktail parties. Not good business, however, for those who care about the fate of suffering people.