Iraq: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Michael
www.zmag.org, December 27, 2006
1. 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?
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 internationational 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. The 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.
2. 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?
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 primaryl
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 freedom.
3. 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?
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.
On 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.
4. 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?
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 judgment.
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 Indochia were colossal: preventing the Sino-Soviet conspiracy
from conquering the world. The near-lunacy of US planners, from
the "wise men" of the Truman adminstration 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 Western plunder.
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 imporant 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 merit.
5. What policies are available to the U.S. warmakers, 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
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 intellectual class.
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 increasing.
As is the norm, Iraqi opinion is almost entirely disregarded.
Current plans are to increase the US force level in Baghad, 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 legimate 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.
6. 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?
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 skepticism 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.
7. 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
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.
Noam Chomsky page