Noam Chomsky re: Iraq invasion & aftermath


Richard Moore


Noam Chomsky Interviewed
By Michael Albert

    Albert: (1) Why did the U.S. invade Iraq, in your view? 

Chomsky: These are naturally speculations, and policy
makers may have varying motives. But we can have a high
degree of confidence about the answers given by
Bush-Powell and the rest; these cannot possibly be
taken seriously. They have gone out of their way to
make sure we understand that, by a steady dose of
self-contradiction ever since last September when the
war drums began to beat. One day the "single question"
is whether Iraq will disarm; in today's version (April
12): "We have high confidence that they have weapons of
mass destruction -- that is what this war was about and
is about." That was the pretext throughout the whole
UN-disarmament farce, though it was never easy to take
seriously; UNMOVIC was doing a good job in virtually
disarming Iraq, and could have continued, if that were
the goal.

But there is no need to discuss it, because after
stating solemnly that this is the "single question,"
they went on the next day to announce that it wasn't
the goal at all: even if there isn't a pocket knife
anywhere in Iraq, the US will invade anyway, because it
is committed to "regime change." The next day we hear
that there's nothing to that either; thus at the Azores
summit, where Bush-Blair issued their ultimatum to the
UN, they made it clear that they would invade even if
Saddam and his gang left the country. So "regime
change" is not enough.

The next day we hear that the goal is "democracy" in
the world. Pretexts range over the lot, depending on
audience and circumstances, which means that no sane
person can take the charade seriously.

The one constant is that the US must end up in control
of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was authorized to suppress,
brutally, a 1991 uprising that might have overthrown
him because "the best of all worlds" for Washington
would be "an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam
Hussein" (by then an embarrassment), which would rule
the country with an "iron fist" as Saddam had done with
US support and approval (NYT chief diplomatic
correspondent Thomas Friedman). The uprising would have
left the country in the hands of Iraqis who might not
have subordinated themselves sufficiently to

The murderous sanctions regime of the following years
devastated the society, strengthened the tyrant, and
compelled the population to rely for survival on his
(highly efficient) system for distributing basic goods.
The sanctions thus undercut the possibility of the kind
of popular revolt that had overthrown an impressive
series of other monsters who had been strongly
supported by the current incumbents in Washington up to
the very end of their bloody rule: Marcos, Duvalier,
Ceausescu, Mobutu, Suharto, and a long list of others,
some of them easily as tyrannical and barbaric as

Had it not been for the sanctions, Saddam probably
would have gone the same way, as has been pointed out
for years by the Westerners who know Iraq best, Denis
Halliday and Hans van Sponeck (though one has to go to
Canada, England, or elsewhere to find their writings).
But overthrow of the regime from within would not be
acceptable either, because it would leave Iraqis in
charge. The Azores summit merely reiterated that stand.

The question of who rules Iraq remains the prime issue
of contention. The US-backed opposition demands that
the UN play a vital role in post-war Iraq and rejects
US control of reconstruction or government (Leith
Kubba, one of the most respected secular voices in the
West, connected with the National Endowment of
Democracy). One of the leading Shi'ite opposition
figures, Sayed Muhamed Baqer al-Hakim, who heads the
Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI),
just informed the press that "we understand this war to
be about imposing US hegemony over Iraq," and perceive
the US as "an occupying rather than a liberating
force." He stressed that the UN must supervise
elections, and called on "foreign troops to withdraw
from Iraq" and leave Iraqis in charge.

US policy-makers have a radically different conception.
They must impose a client regime in Iraq, following the
practice elsewhere in the region, and most
significantly, in the regions that have been under US
domination for a century, Central America and the
Caribbean. That too is well-understood. Brent
Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to Bush I, just
repeated the obvious: "What's going to happen the first
time we hold an election in Iraq and it turns out the
radicals win? What do you do? We're surely not going to
let them take over."

The same holds throughout the region. Recent studies
reveal that from Morocco to Lebanon to the Gulf, about
95% of the population want a greater role in government
for Islamic religious figures, and the same percentage
believe that the sole US interest in the region is to
control its oil and strengthen Israel. Antagonism to
Washington has reached unprecedented heights, and the
idea that Washington would institute a radical change
in policy and tolerate truly democratic elections,
respecting the outcome, seems rather fanciful, to say
the least.

Turning to the question, one reason for the invasion,
surely, is to gain control over the world's second
largest oil reserves, which will place the US in an
even more powerful position of global domination,
maintaining "a stranglehold on the global economy," as
Michael Klare describes the long-term objective, which
he regards as the primary motive for war. However, this
cannot explain the timing. Why now?

The drumbeat for war began in September 2002, and the
government-media propaganda campaign achieved a
spectacular success. Very quickly, the majority of the
population came to believe that Iraq posed an imminent
threat to US security, even that Iraq was involved in
9-11 (up from 3% after 9-11) and was planning new
attacks. Not surprisingly, these beliefs correlated
closely with support for the planned war. The beliefs
are unique to the US. Even in Kuwait and Iran, which
were invaded by Saddam Hussein, he was not feared,
though he was despised. They know perfectly well that
Iraq was the weakest state in the region, and for years
they had joined others in trying to reintegrate Iraq
into the regional system, over strong US objections.
But a highly effective propaganda assault drove the
American population far off the spectrum of world
opinion, a remarkable achievement.

The September propaganda assault coincided with two
important events. One was the opening of the mid-term
election campaign. Karl Rove, the administration's
campaign manager, had already pointed out that
Republicans have to "go to the country" on the issue of
national security, because voters "trust the Republican
Party to do a better job of...protecting America." One
didn't have to be a political genius to realize that if
social and economic issues dominated the election, the
Bush administration did not have a chance. Accordingly,
it was necessary to concoct a huge threat to our
survival, which the powerful leader will manage to
overcome, miraculously. For the elections, the strategy
barely worked. Polls reveal that voters maintained
their preferences, but suppressed concerns over jobs,
pensions, benefits, etc., in favor of security.

Something similar will be needed for the presidential
campaign. All of this is second nature for the current
incumbents. They are mostly recycled from the more
reactionary sectors of the Reagan-Bush administrations,
and know that they were able to run the country for 12
years, carrying out domestic programs that the public
largely opposed, by pushing the panic button regularly:
Libyan attempting to "expel us from the world"
(Reagan), an air base in Grenada from which the
Russians would bomb us, Nicaragua only "two-days
driving time from Harlingen Texas," waving their copies
of Mein Kampf as they planned to take over the
hemisphere, black criminals about to rape your sister
(Willie Horton, the 1988 presidential campaign),
Hispanic narcotraffickers about to destroy us, and on
and on.

To maintain political power is an extremely important
matter if the narrow sectors of power represented by
the Bush administration hope to carry out their
reactionary domestic program over strong popular
opposition, if possible even to institutionalize them,
so it will be hard to reconstruct what is being

Something else happened in September 2002: the
administration released its National Security Strategy,
sending many shudders around the world, including the
US foreign policy elite. The Strategy has many
precedents, but does break new ground: for the first
time in the post-war world, a powerful state announced,
loud and clear, that it intends to rule the world by
force, forever, crushing any potential challenge it
might perceive. This is often called in the press a
doctrine of "pre-emptive war." That is crucially wrong;
it goes vastly beyond pre-emption. Sometimes it is
called more accurately a doctrine of "preventive war."
That too understates the doctrine. No military threat,
however remote, need be "prevented"; challenges can be
concocted at will, and may not involve any threat other
than "defiance"; those who pay attention to history
know that "successful defiance" has often been taken to
be justification for resort to force in the past.

When a doctrine is announced, some action must be taken
to demonstrate that it is seriously intended, so that
it can become a new "norm in international relations,"
as commentators will soberly explain. What is needed is
a war with an "exemplary quality," Harvard Middle East
historian Roger Owen pointed out, discussing the
reasons for the attack on Iraq. The exemplary action
teaches a lesson that others must heed, or else.

Why Iraq? The experimental subject must have several
important qualities. It must be defenseless, and it
must be important; there's no point illustrating the
doctrine by invading Burundi. Iraq qualified perfectly
in both respects. The importance is obvious, and so is
the required weakness. Iraq was not much of a military
force to begin with, and had been largely disarmed
through the 1990s while much of the society was driven
to the edge of survival. 

Its military expenditures and economy were about
one-third those of Kuwait, with 10% of its population,
far below others in the region, and of course the
regional superpower, Israel, by now virtually an
offshore military base of the US. The invading force
not only had utterly overwhelming military power, but
also extensive information to guide its actions from
satellite observation and overflights for many years,
and more recently U-2 flights on the pretext of
disarmament, surely sending data directly back to

Iraq was therefore a perfect choice for an "exemplary
action" to establish the new doctrine of global rule by
force as a "norm of international relations." A high
official involved in drafting the National Security
Strategy informed the press that its publication "was
the signal that Iraq would be the first test, but not
the last." "Iraq became the petri dish in which this
experiment in pre-emptive policy grew," the New York
Times reported -- misstating the policy in the usual
way, but otherwise accurate.

All of these factors gave good reasons for war. And
they also help explain why the planned war was so
overwhelmingly opposed by the public worldwide
(including the US, particularly when we extract the
factor of fear, unique to the US). And also strongly
opposed by a substantial part of economic and foreign
policy elites, a very unusual development. 

They rightly fear that the adventurist posture may
prove very costly to their own interests, even to
survival. It is well-understood that these policies are
driving others to develop a deterrent, which could be
weapons of mass destruction, or credible threats of
serious terror, or even conventional weapons, as in the
case of North Korea, with artillery massed to destroy
Seoul. With any remnants of some functioning system of
world order torn to shreds, the Bush administration is
instructing the world that nothing matters but force --
and they hold the mailed fist, though others are not
likely to tolerate that for long. Including, one hopes,
the American people, who are in by far the best
position to counter and reverse these extremely ominous

    (2) There is some cheering in the streets of Iraqi
    cities. Does this retrospectively undercut the logic of
    antiwar opposition?

I'm surprised that it was so limited and so long
delayed. Every sensible person should welcome the
overthrow of the tyrant, and the ending of the
devastating sanctions, most certainly Iraqis. But the
antiwar opposition, at least the part of it I know
anything about, was always in favor of these ends.
That's why it opposed the sanctions that were
destroying the country and undermining the possibility
of an internal revolt that would send Saddam the way of
the other brutal killers supported by the present
incumbents in Washington. The antiwar movement insisted
that Iraqis, not the US government, must run the
country. And it still does -- or should; it can have a
substantial impact in this regard. Opponents of the war
were also rightly appalled by the utter lack of concern
for the possible humanitarian consequences of the
attack, and by the ominous strategy for which it was
the "test case." The basic issues remain: (1) Who will
run Iraq, Iraqis or a clique in Crawford Texas? (2)
Will the American people permit the narrow reactionary
sectors that barely hold on to political power to
implement their domestic and international agendas?

    (3) There have been no wmd found. Does this
    retrospectively undercut Bush's rationales for war?

Only if one takes the rationale seriously. The
leadership still pretends to, as Fleischer's current
remarks illustrate. If they can find something, which
is not unlikely, that will be trumpeted as
justification for the war. If they can't, the whole
issue will be "disappeared" in the usual fashion.

    (4) If wmd are now found, and verified, would that
    retrospecitvely undercut antiwar opposition?

That's a logical impossibility. Policies and opinions
about them are determined by what is known or plausibly
believed, not by what is discovered afterwards. That
should be elementary.

    (5) Will there be democracy in Iraq, as a result of
    this invasion?

Depends on what one means by "democracy." I presume the
Bush PR team will want to put into place some kind of
formal democracy, as long as it has no substance. But
it's hard to imagine that they would allow a real voice
to the Shi'ite majority, which is likely to join the
rest of the region in trying to establish closer
relations with Iran, the last thing the Bushites want.
Or that they would allow a real voice to the next
largest component of the population, the Kurds, who are
likely to seek some kind of autonomy within a federal
structure that would be anathema to Turkey, a major
base for US power in the region. One should not be
misled by the recent hysterical reaction to the crime
of the Turkish government in adopting the position of
95% of its population, another indication of the
passionate hatred of democracy in elite circles here,
and another reason why no sensible person can take the
rhetoric seriously. Same throughout the region.
Functioning democracy would have outcomes that are
inconsistent with the goal of US hegemony, just as in
our own "backyard" over a century.

    (6) What message has been received by governments
    around the world, with what likely broad implications?

The message is that the Bush administration intends its
National Security Strategy to be taken seriously, as
the "test case" illustrates. It intends to dominate the
world by force, the one dimension in which it rules
supreme, and to do so permanently. A more specific
message, illustrated dramatically by the Iraq-North
Korea case, is that if you want to fend off a US
attack, you had better have a credible deterrent. It's
widely assumed in elite circles that the likely
consequence is proliferation of WMD and terror, in
various forms, based on fear and loathing for the US
administration, which was regarded as the greatest
threat to world peace even before the invasion. That's
no small matter these days. Questions of peace shade
quickly into questions of survival for the species,
given the case of means of violence.

    (7) What was the role of the American media
    establishment in paving the way for this war, and then
    rationalizing it, narrowing the terms of discussion,

The media uncritically relayed government propaganda
about the threat to US security posed by Iraq, its
involvement in 9-11 and other terror, etc. Some
amplified the message on their own. Others simply
relayed it. The effects in the polls were striking, as
often before. Discussion was, as usual, restricted to
"pragmatic grounds": will the US government get away
with its plans at a cost acceptable at home. Once the
war began it became a shameful exercise of cheering for
the home team, appalling much of the world.

    (8) What is next on the agenda, broadly, for Bush and
    Co., if they are able to pursue their preferred

They have publicly announced that the next targets
could be Syria and Iran -- which would require a strong
military base in Iraq, presumably; another reason why
any meaningful democracy is unlikely. It has been
reliably reported for some time that the US and its
allies (Turkey, Israel, and some others) have been
taking steps towards dismemberment of Iran. But there
are other possible targets too. The Andean region
qualifies. It has very substantial resources, including
oil. It is in turmoil, with dangerous independent
popular movements that are not under control. It is by
now surrounded by US military bases with US forces
already on the ground. And one can think of others.

    (9) What obstacles now stand in the way of Bush and
    Co.'s doing as they prefer, and what obstacles might

The prime obstacle is domestic. But that's up to us.

    (10) What has been your impression of antiwar
    opposition and what ought to be its agenda now?

Antiwar opposition here has been completely without
precedent in scale and commitment, something we've
discussed before, and that is certainly obvious to
anyone who has had any experience in these matters here
for the past 40 years. Its agenda right now, I think,
should be to work to ensure that Iraq is run by Iraqis,
that the US provide massive reparations for what it has
done to Iraq for 20 years (by supporting Saddam
Hussein, by wars, by brutal sanctions which probably
caused a great deal more damage and deaths than the
wars); and if that is too much honesty to expect, then
at last massive aid, to be used by Iraqis, as they
decide, which well be something other than US taxpayer
subsidies to Halliburton and Bechtel. Also high on the
agenda should be putting a brake on the extremely
dangerous policies announced in the Security Strategy,
and carried out in the "petri dish." And related to
that, there should be serious efforts to block the
bonanza of arms sales that is happily anticipated as a
consequence of the war, which will also contribute to
making the world a more awful and dangerous place. But
that's only the beginning. The antiwar movement is
indissolubly linked to the global justice movements,
which have much more far-reaching goals, properly.

    (11) What do you think is the relationship between the
    invasion of Iraq and corporate glboalization, and what
    should be the relation between the anticorproate
    globalization movement, and the peace movement?

The invasion of Iraq was strongly opposed by the main
centers of corporate globalization. At the World
Economic Forum in Davos in January, opposition was so
strong that Powell was practically shouted down when he
tried to present a case for the war -- announcing,
pretty clearly, that the US would "lead" even if no one
followed, except for the pathetic Blair. 

The global justice and peace movements are so closely
linked in their objectives that there is nothing much
to say. We should, however, recall that the planners do
draw these links, as we should too, in our own
different way. They predict that their version of
"globalization" will proceed on course, leading to
"chronic financial volatility" (meaning still slower
growth, harming mostly the poor) "and a widening
economic divide" (meaning less globalization in the
technical sense of convergence).

They predict further that "deepening economic
stagnation, political instability, and cultural
alienation will foster ethnic, ideological and
religious extremism, along with violence," much of it
directed against the US -- that is, more terror.

Military planners make the same assumptions. That is a
good part of the rationale for rapidly increasing
military spending, including the plans for
militarization of space that the entire world is trying
to block, without much hope as long as the matter is
kept from the sight of Americans, who have the prime
responsibility to stop it.

I presume that is why some of the major events of last
October were not even reported, among them the US vote
at the UN, alone (with Israel), against a resolution
calling for reaffirmation of a 1925 Geneva convention
banning biological weapons and another resolution
strengthening the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to ban use of
space for military purposes, including offensive
weapons that may well do us all in.

The agenda, as always, begins with trying to find out
what is happening in the world, and then doing
something about it, as we can, better than anyone else.
Few share our privilege, power, and freedom -- hence
responsibility. That should be another truism.
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