What's Happening?
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Atilio Borón
June 14, 2003
Atilio A. Boron: Looking at the recent US policies in Iraq, What do you think was the real goal behind this war?

Noam Chomsky: Well, we can be quite confident on one thing. The reasons we are given can't possibly be the reasons. And we know that, because they are internally contradictory. So one day, Bush and Powell would claim that "the single question," as they put it, is whether Iraq would disarm and the next day they would say it doesnīt matter whether Iraq disarms because they will go on and invade anyway. And the next day would be that if Saddam and his group get out then the problem will be solved; and then, the next day for example, at the Azores, at the summit when they made an ultimatum to the United Nations, they said that even if Saddam and his group get out they would go on and invade anyway. And they went on like that. When people give you contradictory reasons every time they speak, all they are saying is: "don't believe a word I say" . So we can dismiss the official reasons.

And the actual reasons I think are not very obscure. First of all, thereīs a long standing interest. That does not account for the timing but it does account for the interest. And that is that Iraq has the second large oil reserves in the World and controlling Iraqi oil and even ending up probably with military bases in Iraq will place the United States in an extremely strong position to dominate the global energy system even more than it does today. That's a very powerful lever of world control, quite apart from the profits that comes from it. And the US probably doesn't intend to access the oil of Iraq; it intends to use primarily safer Atlantic basin resources for itself (Western Hemisphere, West Africa). But to control the oil has been a leading principle of US foreign policies since the Second World War, and Iraq is particularly significant in this respect. So that's a long standing interest. On the other hand it doesn't explain the timing.

If you want to look at the timing, I think that it became quite clear that the massive propaganda for the war began in September of last year, September 2002. Before that there was a condemnation of Iraq but no effort to whip people into war fever. So we asked what else happened then September 2002. Well, two important things happened. One was the opening of the mid term congressional campaign, and the Bushīs campaign manager, Karl Rove, was very clearly explaining what should be obvious to anybody anyway: that they could not possible enter the campaign with a focus on social and economic issues. The reason is that they are carrying out policies which are quite harmful to the general population and favorable to an extremely narrow sector of corporate power and the corrupt sectors as well, and they can't face the electorate on that. As he pointed out, if we can make the primary issue national security then we will be able win because people will -you know- flock to power if they feel frightened. And that is second nature to these people; that's the way they have ran the country -right through the 1980īs- with very unpopular domestic programs but accustomed to press into the panic button -Nicaragua, Grenada, crime, one thing after another. And Rove also pointed out that something similar would be needed for the presidential election.

And that's true and what they want do is not just to stay in office but they would like to institutionalize the very regressive program put forward domestically, a program which will basically unravel whatever is left of New Deal social democratic systems and turn the country almost completely into a passive undemocratic society, controlled totally by high concentration of capitals. This means slashing public medical assistance, social security; probably schools; and increasing state power. These people are not conservatives, they brought the country into a federal deficit with the largest increase in federal spending in 20 years, that is since their last term in office- and huge tax cuts for the rich, and they want to institutionalize these programs. They are seeking a "fiscal train wreck" that will make it impossible to fund the programs. They know they cannot face an election declaring that they want to destroy very popular programs, but they can throw up their hands in despair and say, "What can we do, there's no money," after they have made sure there would be no money by huge tax cuts for the rich and sharp increase in spending for military (including high tech industry) and other programs beneficial to corporate power and the wealthy. So that's the second, that's the domestic factor and in fact, there was a spectacular propaganda achievement on that. After the government-media propaganda campaign began in September they succeeded in convincing a majority of the population very quickly that Iraq was an imminent threat to the security of the United States, and even that Iraq was responsible for September 11th. I mean, there is not a grain of truth in all that, but by now majority of the population believes those things and those attitudes are correlated strongly with the commitment to war, which is understandable. If people think they are threatened with destruction by an enemy whoīs already attacked them it is {delete "all"} likely that they'll go to war. In effect, if you look at the press today they describe soldiers as saying: "we are here for revenge - you know- because they blew up the World Trade Center, they will attack us", or something. Well, these beliefs are completely unique to the United States.

I mean: no one in the World believes anything like this. In Kuwait and Iran people hate Saddam Hussein, but they are not afraid of him, they know they're the weakest country in the region. In any event the government-media propaganda campaign worked brilliantly as the population was frightened and to a large extent it was willing to support the war despite the fact that there was a lot of opposition. And that's the second factor.

And there was a third factor which was even more important. In September the government announced the national security strategy. That is not completely without precedent, but it is quite new as a formulation of state policy. What is stated is that we are tearing the entire system of the international law to shreds, the end of UN charter, and that we are going to carry out an aggressive war -which we will call {delete "it"} "preventive"- and at any time we choose and that we will rule the world by force. In addition, we will assure that there is never any challenge to our domination because we are so overwhelmingly powerful in military force that we will simply crush any potential challenge.

Well, you know, that caused shudders around the world, including the foreign policy elite at home which was appalled by this. I mean it is not that things like that haven't been heard in the past. Of course they had, but it had never been formulated as an official national policy . I suspect you will have to go back to Hitler to find an analogy to that. Now, when you propose new norms in the international behavior and new policies you have to illustrate it, you have to get people to understand that you mean it. Also you have to have what a Harvard historian called an "exemplary war", a war of example, which shows that we really mean what we say.

And we have to choose the right target. The target has to have several properties. First it has to be completely defenseless. No one would attack anybody who might be able to defend themselves, that would be not prudent. Iraq meets that perfectly : it is the weakest country in the region, it's been devastated by sanctions and almost completely disarmed and the US knows every inch of the Iraq territory by satellite surveillance and overflights, and more recently U-2 flights. So, yes, Irak it is extremely weak and satisfied the first condition.

And secondly, it has to be important. So there will be no point invading Burundi, you know, for example, it has to be a country worthwhile controlling, owning, and Iraq has that property too. Itīs, as mentioned, the second largest oil producer in the world. So it's perfect example and a perfect case for this exemplary war, intending to put the world on notice saying that this is what weīre going do, any time we choose. We have the power. We have declared that {delete "there"} our goal is domination by force and that no challenge will be accepted. We've showed you what we are intending to do and be ready for the next. We will proceed on to the next operation. Those various conditions fold together and they make a war a very reasonable choice in taking to a test some principles.

Atilio A. Boron: According to your analysis then the question is: who is next? Because you donīt believe that they are going to stop in Iraq, wouldn't you?

Noam Chomsky: No, they already made this clear. For one thing they need something for the next presidential election. And that will continue. Through their first twelve years office this continued year after year; and it will continue until they manage to institutionalize the domestic policies to which they are committed and to ensure the global system they want. So what's the next choice? Well the next choice has to meet similar conditions. It has to be valuable enough to attack, and it has to be weak enough to be defenseless. And there are choices, Syria is a possible choice. There Israel will be delighted to participate. Israel alone is a small country, but itīs a offshore US military base, so it has an enormous military force, apart from having hundreds of nuclear weapons (and probably a kind of chemical and biological weapons), its air and armed forces are larger and more advanced that those in any Nato power, and the US is behind it overwhelmingly.

So Syria is a possibility. Iran is a more difficult possibility because itīs a harder country to dominate and control. Yet there is a reason to believe that for a year or two now, efforts have been under way to try dismantle Iran, to break it into internally warring groups. These US dismantling efforts have been based partly in Eastern Turkey, the US bases in Eastern Turkey apparently flying surveillance over Iranian borders. Thatīs another possibility. There is a third possibility that can not be considered lightly, and is the Andean region. The Andean region has a lot of resources and itīs out of control. There are US military bases surrounding the region, and US forces are there already. And the control of Latin-America is of course extremely important. With the developments in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia itīs clear that US domination is challenged and that canīt be accepted, in particular in a region so close and so crucial because of its resource base. So that is another possibility.

Atilio A. Boron: This is really frightening. Now the question is, do you think that all this situation in Iraq, the invasion and the aftermath would affect in a non-reparable manner the political stability of the region? What are likely to be the side effects of this invasion in countries with a very fragile political constitution like the South Arabia or even Syria, Iran or even the Kurds? What may be the future of the Palestine question, which still is of paramount importance in the area?

Noam Chomsky: Well, what's going to happen in the Arab world is extremely hard to predict. I mean: itīs a disorganized and chaotic world dominated by highly authoritarian and brutal regimes. We know what the attitudes are. I mean, the US is very concerned with attitudes in the region so they have pretty good studies made by US Middle East scholars on the attitudes in the region, and the results are pretty dramatic. One of the more recent ones, a University of Maryland study covering from Morocco to the Gulf to Lebanon, the entire area, shows that a very large majority of the population wants religious leaders to have a greater role in government. It also shows that approximately another 95% believe that the sole US interest in the region is taking its oil, strengthening Israel and humiliating the Arabs. That means near unanimity. If there is any popular voice allowed in the region, any moves toward democracy, it could become sort of like Algeria ten years ago, not necessarily radical Islamists but a government with some stronger Islamist currents. This is the last thing the US wants, so chances of any kind of democratic opening very likely will be immediately opposed..

The voices of secular democracy will also be opposed. If they speak up freely, about violation of UN resolutions for example, they will bring up the case of Israel, which has a much worse record than Iraq in this respect but is protected by the United States. And they will have concerns for independence that the US will not favor, so it will continue to support oppressive and undemocratic regimes, as in the past, and as in Latin America for many years, unless it can be assured that they will keep closely to Washington's priorities.

On the other hand these chaotic popular movements are so difficult to predict. I mean, even the participants can't or don't know what they want. What we know is this tremendous hatred, antagonisms and fear -probably more than ever before- On the Israel-Palestine issue that is, of course, the core issue in the Arab world, the Bush administration has been very careful not to take any position, though there are actions, which undermine the prospects for peaceful resolution: funding more Israeli settlement programs, for example.

They don't say anything significant. The most they say is that we have a "vision," or something equally meaningless. Meanwhile the actions have been taken, and the US had continued to support the more extremist positions within Israel. So what the press describes as George Bush's most significant recent statements, then later reiterated by Colin Powell, was the statement that said that settlement in the occupied territories can continue until the United State determines that the conditions for peace have been established, and you can move forward on this mythical "Road Map."

The statement that was hailed as "significant" in fact amounts to a shift in policy, to a more extremist form. Up until now the official position has been that there should be no more settlements. Of course, that's hypocritical of the United States because meanwhile it continues to provide the military, and economic, and diplomatic support for more settlements, but the official position has been opposed to it. Now the official position is in favor of it, until such time as the US determines unilaterally that the "peace process" has made enough progress, which means, basically indefinitely. Also it wasn't very well noticed that last December, at the UN General Assembly, the Bush administration shifted the US policy crucially on an important issue. Up until that time, until last December, the US has always officially endorsed the Security Council resolutions of 1968 opposing Israel's annexation of Jerusalem, and ordering Israel to withdraw the moves to take over East Jerusalem and to expand Jerusalem, which is now a huge area.

The US had always officially opposed that, although, again hypocritically. As of last December the Bush administration came out in support of it. This was a pretty sharp change in policy, and it is also significant that it was not reported in the United States. But it took place. So this is the only concrete act, and continues like that. The US has in the past vetoed the European efforts to place international monitors in the territories, which would be a way of reducing political, violent confrontations. The US undermined the December 2001 meetings in Geneva to implement the Geneva conventions and as almost all the other contracting parties appeared the US refused and that, essentially, blocked it. Bush then declared Sharon to be "a man of peace" and supported his repressive activities, as was pretty obvious. So the indications are that the US will move towards a very harsh policy in the territories, granting the Palestinians at most some kind of meaningless formal status as a "state". Of course, this would dress up as democracy, and peace, and freedom, and so on. They have a huge public relations operation and it would be presented in that way, but I don't think the reality looks very promising.

Atilio A. Boron: I have two more question to go. One is about the future of the United Nations system. An article by Henry Kissinger recently reproduced in Argentina argued that multilateralism is over and that the world has to come to terms with the absolute superiority of the American armed forces and that we've better go alone with that because the old system is dead. What is your reflection on the international arena?

Noam Chomsky: Well you know, it's a little bit like financial and industrial strategy. It is a more brazen formulation of policies which have always been carried out. The unilateralism with regard to the United Nations, as Henry Kissinger knows perfectly well, goes far back. Was there any UN authorization for the US invasion of South Vietnam 40 years ago? In fact, the issue could not even come up at the United Nations. The UN and all the countries were in overwhelming opposition to the US operations in Vietnam, but the issue could literally never arise and it was never discussed because everyone understood that if the issues were discussed the UN would simply be dismantled.

When the World Court condemned the United States for its attack on Nicaragua, the official response of the Reagan administration, which is the same people now in office, the official response when they rejected World Court jurisdiction was that other nations do not agree with us and therefore we will reserve to ourselves the right to determine what falls within the domestic jurisdiction of the United States. I am quoting it. In this case, that was an attack on Nicaragua. You can hardly can have a more extreme unilateralism than that. And American elites accepted that, and so it was applauded and, in fact, quickly forgotten. In your next trip to the US take a poll in the Political Science Department where you are visiting and you will find people who never heard of it. It's as wiped out as this. As is the fact that the US had to veto the Security Council's resolutions supporting the Court's decision and calling on all states to observe international law. Well, you know that is unilateralism in its extreme, and it goes back before that.

Right after the missile crisis, which practically brought the world to a terminal nuclear war, a major crisis, the Kennedy administration resumed its terrorist activities against Cuba and its economic warfare which was the background for the crisis and Dean Acheson, a respected statesman and Kennedy advisor at the liberal end of the spectrum, gave an important address to the American Society of International Law in which he essentially stated the Bush Doctrine of September 2002. What he said is that no "legal issue" arises in the case of a US response to a challenge to its "power, position, and prestige." Can't be more extreme than that. The differences with September 2002 is that instead of being operative policy now it became official policy. That is the difference. The UN has been irrelevant to the extent that the US refused to allow it to function. So, since the mid 1960's when the UN had become somewhat more independent, because of decolonization and the recovery of other countries of the world from the ravages of the war, since 1965 the US is far in the lead in vetoing Security Council resolutions on a wide range of issues -Britain is second- and no one else is even close. All that renders the UN ineffective. It means, you do as we say or else we will kick you in the pants. Now it is more brazen.

The only correct statement that Kissinger is making is that now we will not conceal the policies that we are carrying out.

Atilio A. Boron: OK. Here is my last question: What has been the impact of the Iraqi War on the freedoms and public liberties of the American public? We have heard horrifies stories about librarians been forced to indicate the names of people checking out books regarded as suspicious or subversives. What has been the real impact of the war in the domestic politics of the US?

Noam Chomsky: Well, those things are taking place but I don't think they are specifically connected with the Iraq War. The Bush administration, let me repeat it again, they are not conservatives; they are statist reactionaries. They want a very powerful state, a huge state in fact, a violent state and one that enforces obedience on the population. There is a kind of quasi-fascist spirit there, in the background, and they have been attempting to undermine civil rights in many ways. That's one of their long term objectives, and they have to do it quickly because in the US there is a strong tradition of protection of civil rights. But the kind of surveillance you are talking about of libraries and so on is a step towards it. They have also claimed the right to place a person -- even an American citizen -- in detention without charge, without access to lawyers and family, and to hold them there indefinitely, and that in fact has been upheld by the Courts, which is pretty shocking. But they have a new proposal, sometimes called Patriot Two, a 80 page document inside the Justice department. Someone leaked it and it reached the press. There have been some outraged articles by law professors about it. This is only planned so far, but they would like to implement as secretly as they can. These plans would permit the Attorney General to remove citizenship from any individual whom the attorney general believes is acting in a way harmful to the US interests. I mean, this is going beyond anything contemplated in any democratic society. One law professor at New York University has written that this administration evidently will attempt to take away any civil rights that it can from citizens and I think itīs basically correct. That fits in with their reactionary statist policies which have a domestic aspect in the economy and social life but also in political life.

Atilio A. Boron: Professor Chomsky, it was a great pleasure to have you expressing your words for the Argentine audience. I want to thank you very much for this interview and I hope that we can be in touch again in the future. Have a good day!