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Chomsky: US and Britain tear up International Law

'This action is a call for a lawless world in which the powerful will 

Interview with Noam Chomsky - from FrontLine magazine, a national Indian 

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

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 crime. Excerpts: 

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 action? 

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 the bombing. 


                        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 a technicality. 

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 of aggression. 

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 region. 

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

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 Commander-in-Chief. 

The coincidence of timing, then, is harmful to Clinton personally but it 
could be helpful to the public relations efforts of the
Democratic Party. 

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 diplomatic phase. 

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 counter-react. 

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 U.S.? 

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

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

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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