Iraq: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Michael Albert, 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 be?

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 do?

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.

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