Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow
Chomsky, University Professor at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, founder of the modern science of linguistics
and political activist, is a powerhouse of anti-imperialist
activism in the United States today. The interview is republished
with the permission of
Why did the U.S. invade Iraq? (And why did important sectors
of the political elite, like Scowcroft, oppose doing so?) What
are the U.S. motives for staying?
NOAM CHOMSKY: The official reason was what Bush, Powell, and
others called "the single question": will Saddam end
his development of Weapons of Mass Destruction? The official
Presidential Directive states the primary goal as to: "Free
Iraq in order to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction,
their means of delivery and associated programs, to prevent
Iraq from breaking out of containment and becoming a more dangerous
threat to the region and beyond." That was the basis for
congressional support for the invasion. The Directive goes on
with the goal of cutting "Iraqi links to and sponsorship
of international terrorism," etc. A few phrases are thrown
in from the standard boilerplate about freedom that accompanies
every action, and is close to a historical universal, hence
dismissed as meaningless by reasonable people, but there to
be dredged up by the doctrinal system when needed.
When the "single question" was answered the wrong
way, and the claims about international terrorism became too
much of an embarrassment to repeat (though not for Cheney and
a few others), the goal was changed to "democracy promotion."
The media and journals, along with almost all scholarship, quickly
jumped on that bandwagon, relieved to discover that this is
the most "noble war" in history, pursuing Bush's "messianic
mission" to bring freedom and democracy to the world. Some
Iraqis agreed: 1% in a poll in Baghdad just as the noble vision
was declared in Washington. In the West, in contrast, it doesn't
matter that there is a mountain of evidence refuting the claim,
and even apart from the timing -- which should elicit ridicule
-- the evidence for the "mission" is that our Dear
Leader so declared. I've reviewed the disgraceful record in
print. It continues with scarcely a break to the present, so
consistently that I've stopped collecting the absurd repetitions
of the dogma.
The real reason for the invasion, surely, is that Iraq has the
second largest oil reserves in the world, very cheap to exploit,
and lies right at the heart of the world's major hydrocarbon
resources, what the State Department 60 years ago described
as "a stupendous source of strategic power." The issue
is not access, but rather control (and for the energy corporations,
profit). Control over these resources gives the US "critical
leverage" over industrial rivals, to borrow Zbigniew Brezinski's
phrase, echoing George Kennan when he was a leading planner
and recognized that such control would give the US "veto
power" over others. Dick Cheney observed that control over
energy resources provides "tools of intimidation or blackmail"
-- when in the hands of others, that is. We are too pure and
noble for those considerations to apply to us, so true believers
declare -- or more accurately, just presuppose, taking the point
to be too obvious to articulate.
There was unprecedented elite condemnation of the plans to invade
Iraq, even articles in the major foreign policy journals, a
publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and
others. Sensible analysts were able to perceive that the enterprise
carried significant risks for US interests, however conceived.
Global opposition was utterly overwhelming, and the likely costs
to the US were apparent, though the catastrophe created by the
invasion went far beyond anyone's worst expectations. It's amusing
to watch the lying as the strongest supporters of the war try
to deny what they very clearly said. There is a good review
of the "mendacity" of neocon intellectuals (Ledeen,
Krauthammer, and others) in The American Conservative,
Jan. 07. But they are not alone.
On the US motives for staying, I can only repeat what I've been
writing for years. A sovereign Iraq, partially democratic, could
well be a disaster for US planners. With a Shi'ite majority,
it is likely to continue improving relations with Iran. There
is a Shi'ite population right across the border in Saudi Arabia,
bitterly oppressed by the US-backed tyranny. Any step towards
sovereignty in Iraq encourages activism there for human rights
and a degree of autonomy -- and that happens to be where most
of Saudi oil is. Sovereignty in Iraq might well lead to a loose
Shi'ite alliance controlling most of the world's hydrocarbon
resources and independent of the US, undermining a primary goal
of US foreign policy since it became the world-dominant power
after World War II. Worse yet, though the US can intimidate
Europe, it cannot intimidate China, which blithely goes its
own way, even in Saudi Arabia, the jewel in the crown -- the
primary reason why China is considered a leading threat. An
independent energy bloc in the Gulf area is likely to link up
with the China-based Asian Energy Security Grid and Shanghai
Cooperation Council, with Russia (which has its own huge resources)
as an integral part, along with the Central Asian states (already
members), possibly India. Iran is already associated with them,
and a Shi'ite dominated bloc in the Arab states might well go
along. All of that would be a nightmare for US planners, and
its Western allies.
There are, then,
very powerful reasons why the US-UK are likely to try in every
possible way to maintain effective control over Iraq.
US is not constructing a palatial Embassy, by far the largest
in the world and virtually a separate city within Baghdad, and
pouring money into military bases, with the intention of leaving
Iraq to Iraqis. All of this is quite separate from the expectations
that matters can be arranged so that US corporations profit
from the vast riches of Iraq.
These topics, though
surely high on the agenda of planners, are not within the realm
of discussion, as can easily be determined. That is only to
be expected. These considerations violate the fundamental doctrine
that state power has noble objectives, and while it may make
terrible blunders, it can have no crass motives and is not influenced
by domestic concentrations of private power. Any questioning
of these Higher Truths is either ignored or bitterly denounced,
also for good reasons: allowing them to be discussed could undermine
power and privilege. I don't, incidentally, suggest that commentators
have much awareness of this. In our society, intellectual elites
are deeply indoctrinated, a point that Orwell noted in his (unpublished)
introduction to Animal Farm on how self-censorship works in
free societies. A large part of the reason, he plausibly concluded,
is a good education, which instills the understanding that there
are certain things "it wouldn't do to say" -- or more
accurately, even to think.
ALBERT: What, from the elite perspective, would be a major victory
in Iraq, what would be modest but still sufficient success,
and what would constitute a loss? More, for completeness, how
much does democracy in Iraq, democracy in the U.S., the well
being of people in Iraq, or the well being of people in the
U.S. -- or even of our soldiers -- enter into the motivations
of U.S. policy?
NOAM CHOMSKY: A major victory would be establishing an obedient
client state, as elsewhere. A modest success would be preventing
a degree of sovereignty that might allow Iraq to pursue the
rather natural course I just described. As for democracy, even
the most dedicated scholar/advocates of "democracy promotion"
recognize that there is a "strong line of continuity"
in US efforts to promote democracy going back as far as you
like and reaching the present: democracy is supported if and
only if it conforms to strategic and economic objectives, so
that all presidents are "schizophrenic," a strange
puzzle (Thomas Carothers). That is so obvious that it takes
really impressive discipline to miss it. It is a remarkable
feature of US (in fact Western) intellectual culture that each
well-indoctrinated mind can simultaneously lavish praise on
our awesome dedication to democracy while at the same moment
demonstrating utter contempt and hatred for democracy. For example,
supporting the brutal punishment of people who committed the
crime of voting "the wrong way" in a free election,
as in Palestine right now, with pretexts that would inspire
ridicule in a free society. As for democracy in the US, elite
opinion has generally considered it a dangerous threat, which
must be resisted. The well-being of US soldiers is a concern,
though not a primary one. As for the well-being of the population
here, it suffices to look at domestic policies. Of course, these
matters cannot be completely ignored, even in totalitarian dictatorships,
surely not in societies where popular struggle has won considerable
ALBERT: Why has the occupation been such a disaster, again,
from the elite perspective? Would more troops have helped initially?
Was it wrong to disband the army and order de-Baathification?
If these or other policies were mistakes, why were the mistakes
made? Why are calls to withdraw coming not only from sincere
antiwar opposition, but also from elites with self serving agendas?
Are the latter just rhetoric? Do they indicate real differences?
NOAM CHOMSKY: There is plenty of elite commentary about the
reasons for the disaster, which has few historical counterparts.
It's worth bearing in mind that the Nazis had far less trouble
running occupied Europe -- with civilians in charge of administration
and security for the most part -- than the US is having in Iraq.
And Germany was at war. The same was true of the Russians in
Eastern Europe, and there are many other examples, in US history
too. The primary reason for the catastrophe, it is now generally
agreed, is what I was told (and wrote about) a few months after
the invasion by a high-ranking figure in one of the leading
relief organizations, with rich experience in some of the most
awful parts of the world. He had just returned from failed efforts
at reconstruction in Baghdad, and told me that he had never
seen such a display of "arrogance, incompetence, and ignorance."
The specific blunders are the topic of an extensive literature.
I have nothing particular to add, and frankly, the topic doesn't
interest me much, any more than Russia's tactical mistakes in
Afghanistan, Hitler's error of fighting a two-front war, etc.
withdrawal proposals from elite circles, I think one should
be cautious. Some may be so deeply indoctrinated that they cannot
allow themselves to think about the reasons for the invasion
or the insistence on maintaining the occupation, in one or another
form. Others may have in mind more effective techniques of control
by redeploying US military forces in bases in Iraq and in the
region, making sure to control logistics and support for client
forces in Iraq, air power in the style of the destruction of
much of Indochina after the business community turned against
the war, and so on.
ALBERT: What has been the impact of the anti-war movement on
policy and policymakers? Would choices by elites have been different
if there were no antiwar activity? When compared with the Vietnam
era, this war seems to have much more at stake, yet elite support
is wobbling quicker and more deeply than it did with Vietnam.
The opposition is less militant and passionate now, though arguably
wider in its reach. What is your take on these matters?
NOAM CHOMSKY: It's hard to make an informed judgment about the
impact on policy. In the case of Indochina, there is an internal
record; for Iraq there is not, so it is a much more subjective
On the rest, I think we have to be careful in comparing the
two wars. They are very different in character, and conditions
have changed greatly. The Indochina wars began shortly after
World War II, when the Truman administration decided to support
France's effort to reconquer its former colony. The US then
blocked a diplomatic settlement and established a brutal and
corrupt client state in South Vietnam, which elicited resistance
that it could not control, even after killing tens of thousands
of people. By 1961, the JFK administration decided to attack
directly. Within a few years South Vietnam was devastated, and
by 1965, the LBJ administration expanded the war to the North
in the hope that Hanoi would pressure the South Vietnamese resistance
to desist, also sending hundreds of thousands of troops to occupy
SVN. Through all this long period, there was virtually no protest,
so little that few even know that Kennedy attacked SVN outright
in 1962. The war was unpopular, so much so that Kennedy planners
tried to find some way to reduce the US role, but only -- as
Kennedy insisted to the end -- after victory. As late as October
1965, the first major public demonstration against the war,
in liberal Boston, was broken up by counter-demonstrators, with
the strong support of the liberal media. By then the war against
Vietnam had proceeded far beyond the invasion of Iraq in scale
and violence. Iraq is consumed by violence today, but it is
radically different from Indochina, where the US was fighting
an murderous war against the general population, who supported
the indigenous South Vietnamese resistance, as US experts knew
very well, and reported, sometimes even publicly. Very belatedly,
a significant anti-war movement developed, by 1967-8, including
direct resistance to the war, but it's worth remembering how
long it was delayed, and how much more horrendous US actions
were in Vietnam than in Iraq, by the time it did develop. And
even at its peak, the anti-war movement mostly focused on the
bombing of the North, and elite opposition was mostly limited
to that, because of the threats posed to US power and interests
by extension the war to the North -- where there were foreign
embassies, Russian ships in Haiphong harbor, a Chinese railroad
passing through North Vietnam, a powerful air defense system,
and so on. The destruction of SVN, the main target throughout,
passed with much less protest, and was regarded as relatively
costless. The government recognized this. To take one example,
internal records reveal that the bombing of NVN was meticulously
planned, because of the feared costs. In contrast, there was
only scanty attention to the far more intense bombing of SVN,
which was already disastrous in 1965 when it was sharply escalated,
and by 1967 led the most respected Vietnam specialist and military
analyst, Bernard Fall (no dove), to wonder whether the society
would even survive as a cultural and historical entity under
the US assault.
Quite unlike Vietnam, there were massive protests against the
invasion of Iraq even before it was officially undertaken, and
opposition has continued high, much higher than during corresponding
stages of the US invasion of SVN.
Turning to what was at stake, the pretexts concocted for the
wars in Indochina were colossal: preventing the Sino-Soviet
conspiracy from conquering the world. The near-lunacy of US
planners, from the "wise men" of the Truman administration
through the Eisenhower years and the "best and the brightest"
of Camelot, was quite extraordinary, particularly with regard
to the images they concocted of China, shifting as circumstances
required. Though a lot had been known, the first major study
of the National Security World in those years only recently
appeared: James Peck's Washington's China. I haven't come across
reviews. It is highly revealing.
There were, of course, also saner elements in planning circles.
They recognized that real interests were at stake, though not
a "Slavic Manchukuo" (Dean Rusk) or "revolutionary
China" as part of the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy"
to control the world (JFK), etc. The internal records reveal
the usual concern about the rational version of the domino theory
-- quite distinct from the fevered version served up to the
public, but so rational that it is consistently invoked in internal
planning records. The plausible fear in this case was that an
independent Vietnam might pursue a path of independent development
in a manner that would inspire others in the region. It might
be a "virus spreading contagion," in Kissinger's rhetoric
(about Allende), perhaps as far as resource-rich Indonesia.
That might lead Japan to "accommodate" to an independent
Southeast and East Asia as its industrial and technological
center, reconstructing Japan's New Order outside US control
(Kennan and other planners considered that to be fine as long
as it was under US control). That would mean that the US had
effectively lost the Pacific phase of World War II. The natural
reaction was to destroy the virus and inoculate those who might
succumb, by establishing vicious dictatorships. That goal was
achieved, with great success. That is why National Security
Adviser McGeorge Bundy later reflected that the US might well
have cut back its war effort by 1965, after the Suharto coup
in Indonesia, which aroused unconstrained euphoria after he
slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed the only
mass-based political organization, and opened the country to
Without continuing, the real stakes were significant, and the
US victory was not insubstantial; and the concocted pretexts,
apparently believed, were not just significant but colossal.
The stakes in Iraq are enormous too, but it is not at all clear
that they exceed those perceived in Indochina. And they are
very different in character. Despite some inflated rhetoric
from Eisenhower and others, Vietnamese resources were of limited
interest, while in Iraq they are an overriding concern. The
US could achieve its major war aims in Vietnam simply by destroying
it; not in Iraq, which has to be controlled, not destroyed.
And while there was concern over the "virus" effect
in Vietnam, that was never a consideration in Iraq.
Looking more closely at the anti-war movements in both cases,
I think, as noted, that it has actually been greater in the
case of Iraq than it was during any comparable state of the
Indochina wars. Furthermore, this country has significantly
changed as a result of 60s activism and its aftermath. The movement
against the war in Vietnam, when it finally developed, was not
"diluted" by the wide-ranging concerns of activists
today. I can easily elaborate even keeping to my own experience.
Consider just talks. In the late 1960s almost all requests were
about the Vietnam war. Today, only a fraction are about the
Iraq war, not because the war is not a concern, but because
there are so many other live and important concerns. Furthermore
the deluge of invitations is far greater in scale, on all sorts
of issues that were scarcely discussed 40 years ago, and audiences
are far larger and much more engaged. And there are many other
factors detracting from activism, such as the enormous amount
of energy drained away by the "9/11 Truth Movement."
There may be an impression of less anti-war activism today than
in Vietnam, but I think it is quite misleading -- even though
protest against the war in Iraq is far less than the crimes
ALBERT: What policies are available to the U.S. war makers,
now? What options are plausible as what they would like to do,
if they could have their way? Is withdrawal in the cards? Will
withdrawal lead to even worse civil war? Will withdrawal lead
to the victory of either Baathists or Islamic fundamentalists?
What would be the effect of either? If there is no withdrawal
now, forced by opposition or sought by some elites, or both,
what do you think policy will be?
NOAM CHOMSKY: One policy available to US planners is to accept
the responsibilities of aggressors generally: to pay massive
reparations for their crimes -- not aid, but reparations --
and to attend to the will of the victims. But such thoughts
are beyond consideration, or commentary, in societies with a
deeply rooted imperial mentality and a highly indoctrinated
The government, and commentators, know quite a lot about the
will of the victims, from regular polls run by the US and Western
polling agencies. The results are quite consistent. By now,
about 2/3 of Baghdadis want US forces to withdraw immediately,
and about 70% of all Iraqis want a firm timetable for withdrawal,
mostly within a year or less: that means far higher percentages
in Arab Iraq, where the troops are actually deployed. 80% (including
Kurdish areas) believe that the US presence increases violence,
and almost the same percentage believe that the US intends to
keep permanent military bases. These numbers have been regularly
As is the norm, Iraqi opinion is almost entirely disregarded.
Current plans are to increase the US force level in Baghdad,
where the large majority of the population wants them out. The
Baker-Hamilton report did not even mention Iraqi opinions on
withdrawal. Not that they lacked the information; they cited
the very same polls on matters of concern to Washington, specifically,
support for attacks on US soldiers (considerered legitimate
by 60% of Iraqis), leading to policy recommendations for change
of tactics. Similarly, US opinion is of little interest, not
only about Iraq, but also about the next looming crisis, Iran.
75% of Americans (including 56% of Republicans) favor pursuing
better relations with Iran rather than threats. That fact scarcely
enters into policy considerations or commentary, just as policy
is not affected by the large majorities that favor diplomatic
relations with Cuba. Elite opinion is profoundly undemocratic,
though overflowing with lofty rhetoric about love of democracy
and messianic missions to promote democracy. There is nothing
new or surprising about that, and of course it is not limited
to the US.
As to the consequences of a US withdrawal, we are entitled to
have our personal judgments, all of them as uninformed and dubious
as those of US intelligence. But they do not matter. What matters
is what Iraqis think. Or rather, that is what should matter,
and we learn a lot about the character and moral level of the
reigning intellectual culture from the fact that the question
of what the victims want barely even arises.
ALBERT: What do you see as the likely consequences of various
policy proposals that have been put forward: (a) the Baker-Hamilton
committee recommendations; (b) the Peter Galbraith-Biden-Gelb
proposal to divide Iraq into three separate countries.
NOAM CHOMSKY: The Baker-Hamilton recommendations are in part
just a wish list: wouldn't it be nice if Iran and Syria would
help us out? Every recommendation is so hedged as to be almost
meaningless. Thus, combat troops should be reduced, unless they
are needed to protect Americans soldiers -- for example, those
embedded in Iraqi units, where many regard them as legitimate
targets of attack. Buried in the report are the expected recommendations
to allow corporate (meaning mostly US-UK) control over energy
resources. These are left undiscussed, perhaps regarded as inappropriate
to bring to public attention. There are a few words recommending
that the President announce that we do not intend a permanent
military presence, but without a call to terminate construction.
Much the same throughout. The report dismisses partition proposals,
even the more limited proposals for a high level of independence
within a loosely federal structure. Though it's not really our
business, or our right to decide, their scepticism is probably
warranted. Neighboring countries would be very hostile to an
independent Kurdistan, which is landlocked, and Turkey might
even invade, which would also threaten the long-standing and
critical US-Turkey-Israel alliance. Kurds strongly favor independence,
but appear to regard it as not feasible -- for now, at least.
The Sunni states might invade to protect the Sunni areas, which
lack resources. The Shia region might improve ties with Iran.
It could set off a regional war. My own view is that federal
arrangements make good sense, not only in Iraq. But these do
not seem realistic prospects for the near-term future.
ALBERT: In contrast, what do you think policy should be? Suppose
sincere concern for real democracy, sincere concern for populations
in need, sincere concern for law and justice were to suddenly
gain a hold on decision making, or suppose the will of an antiwar
opposition could dictate terms, what should U.S. policymakers
be forced to do?
NOAM CHOMSKY: The answer seems to me pretty straightforward.
Policy should be that of all aggressors: (1) pay reparations;
(2) attend to the will of the victims; (3) hold the guilty parties
accountable, in accord with the Nuremberg principles, the UN
Charter, and other international instruments, even the US War
Crimes Act before it was eviscerated by the Military Commisions
Act, one of the most shameful pieces of legislation in American
history. There are no mechanical principles in human affairs,
but these are sensible guidelines. A more practical proposal
is to work to change the domestic society and culture substantially
enough so that what should be done can at least become a topic
for discussion. That is a large task, not only on this issue,
though I think elite opposition is far more ferocious than that
of the general public.