War 'The Supreme Crime'
Iraq: invasion that will live in infamy
by NOAM CHOMSKY
2002 was marked by three events of considerable importance, closely
, the most powerful state in history, announced a new national security
strategy asserting that it will maintain global hegemony permanently.
Any challenge will be blocked by force, the dimension in which the
reigns supreme. At the same time, the war drums began to beat to
mobilise the population for an invasion of
. And the campaign opened for the mid-term congressional elections,
which would determine whether the administration would be able to carry
forward its radical international and domestic agenda.
new "imperial grand strategy", as it was termed at once by
John Ikenberry writing in the leading establishment journal, presents
the US as "a revisionist state seeking to parlay its moment ary
advantages into a world order in which it runs the show", a
unipolar world in which "no state or coalition could ever challenge
it as global leader, protector, and enforcer" (1). These policies
are fraught with danger even for the
itself, Ikenberry warned, joining many others in the foreign policy
is to be protected is
power and the interests it represents, not the world, which vigorously
opposed the concept. Within a few months studies revealed that fear of
had reached remarkable heights, along with distrust of the political
leadership. An international Gallup poll in December, which was barely
noticed in the US, found almost no support for Washington's announced
plans for a war in Iraq carried out unilaterally by America and its
allies - in effect, the US-United Kingdom coalition.
told the United Nations
that it could be relevant by endorsing US plans, or it could be a
debating society. The US had the "sovereign right to take military
action", the administration's moderate Colin Powell told the World
Economic Forum, which also vigorously opposed the war plans: "When
we feel strongly about something we will lead, even if no one is
following us" (2).
George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair underscored their
contempt for international law and institutions at their
summit meeting on the eve of the invasion. They issued an ultimatum, not
, but to the Security Council: capitulate, or we will invade without
your meaningless seal of approval. And we will do so whether or not
Saddam Hussein and his family leave the country (3). The crucial
principle is that the
must effectively rule
Bush declared that the
"has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own
national security", threatened by
with or without Saddam, according to the Bush doctrine. The
will be happy to establish an Arab facade, to borrow the term of the
British during their days in the sun, while
power is firmly implanted at the heart of the world's major
energy-producing region. Formal democracy will be fine, but only if it
is of a submissive kind accepted in the
's backyard, at least if history and current practice are any guide.
grand strategy authorises the
to carry out preventive war: preventive, not pre-emptive. Whatever the
justifications for pre-emptive war might be, they do not hold for
preventive war, particularly as that concept is interpreted by its
current enthusiasts: the use of military force to eliminate an invented
or imagined threat, so that even the term "preventive" is too
charitable. Preventive war is, very simply, the supreme crime that was
was understood by those with some concern for their country. As the
, the historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote that Bush's grand strategy was
"alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial
employed at the time of
, on a date which, as an earlier American president [Franklin D
Roosevelt] said it would, lives in infamy". It was no surprise,
added Schlesinger, that "the global wave of sympathy that engulfed
after 9/11 has given way to a global wave of hatred of American
arrogance and militarism" and the belief that Bush was "a
greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein" (4).
the political leadership, mostly recycled from the more reactionary
sectors of the Reagan-Bush Senior administrations, the global wave of
hatred is not a particular problem. They want to be feared, not loved.
It is natural for the Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, to quote
the words of
gangster Al Capone: "You will get more with a kind word and a gun
than with a kind word alone." They understand just as well as their
establishment critics that their actions increase the risk of
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terror. But that
too is not a major problem. Far higher in the scale of their priorities
are the goals of establishing global hegemony and implementing their
domestic agenda, which is to dismantle the progressive achievements that
have been won by popular struggle over the past century, and to
institutionalise their radical changes so that recovering the
achievements will be no easy task.
is not enough for a hegemonic power to declare an official policy. It
must establish it as a new norm of international law by exemplary
action. Distinguished commentators may then explain that the law is a
flexible living instrument, so that the new norm is now available as a
guide to action. It is understood that only those with the guns can
establish norms and modify international law.
selected target must meet several conditions. It must be defenceless,
important enough to be worth the trouble, an imminent threat to our
survival and an ultimate evil.
qualified on all counts. The first two conditions are obvious. For the
third, it suffices to repeat the orations of Bush, Blair, and their
colleagues: the dictator "is assembling the world's most dangerous
weapons [in order to] dominate, intimidate or attack"; and he
"has already used them on whole villages leaving thousands of his
own citizens dead, blind or transfigured. If this is not evil then evil
has no meaning." Bush's eloquent denunciation surely rings true.
And those who contributed to enhancing evil should certainly not enjoy
impunity: among them, the speaker of these lofty words and his current
associates, and all those who joined them in the years when they were
supporting that man of ultimate evil, Saddam Hussein, long after he had
committed these terrible crimes, and after the first war with Iraq.
Supported him because of our duty to help US exporters, the Bush Senior
is impressive to see how easy it is for polit ical leaders, while
recounting Saddam the monster's worst crimes, to suppress the crucial
words "with our help, because we don't care about such
matters". Support shifted to denunciation as soon as their friend
Saddam committed his first authentic crime, which was disobeying (or
perhaps misunderstanding) orders, by invading
. Punishment was severe - for his subjects. The tyrant escaped
unscathed, and was further strengthened by the sanctions regime then
imposed by his former allies.
easy to suppress are the reasons why the
returned to support Saddam immediately after the Gulf war, as he crushed
rebellions that might have overthrown him. The chief diplomatic
correspondent of the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, explained that the
best of all worlds for the
would be "an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein",
but since that goal seemed unattainable, we would have to be satisfied
with second best (5). The rebels failed because the US and its allies
held the "strikingly unanimous view [that] whatever the sins of the
Iraqi leader, he offered the West and the region a better hope for his
country's stability than did those who have suffered his
of this was suppressed in the commentary on the mass graves of the
victims of the
authorised paroxysm of terror of Saddam Hussein, which commentary was
offered as a justification for the war on "moral grounds". It
was all known in 1991, but ignored for reasons of state.
population had to be whipped to a proper mood of war fever. From
September grim warnings were issued about the dire threat that Saddam
posed to the US and his links to al-Qaida, with broad hints that he had
been involved in the 9/11 attacks. Many of the charges that had been
"dangled in front of [the media] failed the laugh test,"
commented the editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, "but the
more ridiculous [they were,] the more the media strove to make
whole-hearted swallowing of them a test of patriotism" (7). The
propaganda assault had its effects. Within weeks, a majority of
Americans came to regard Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat to the
. Soon almost half believed that
was behind the 9/11 terror. Support for the war correlated with these
beliefs. The propaganda campaign was just enough to give the
administration a bare majority in the mid-term elections, as voters put
aside their immediate concerns and huddled under the umbrella of power
in fear of a demonic enemy.
brilliant success of public diplomacy was revealed when Bush, in the
words of one commentator, "provided a powerful Reaganesque finale
to a six-week war on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on
1 May". This reference is presumably to President Ronald Reagan's
proud declaration that
was "standing tall" after conquering
, the nutmeg cap ital of the world, in 1983, preventing the Russians
from using it to bomb the
. Bush, as Reagan's mimic, was free to declare - without concern for
sceptical comment at home - that he had won a "victory in a war on
terror [by having] removed an ally of al-Qaida" (8). It has been
immaterial that no credible evidence was provided for the alleged link
between Saddam Hussein and his bitter enemy Osama bin Laden and that the
charge was dismissed by competent observers. Also immaterial was the
only known connection between the victory and terror: the invasion
appears to have been "a huge setback in the war on terror" by
sharply increasing al-Qaida recruitment, as US officials concede (9).
Wall Street Journal recognised that Bush's carefully staged aircraft
carrier extravaganza "marks the beginning of his 2004 re-election
campaign" which the White House hopes "will be built as much
as possible around national-security themes". The electoral
campaign will focus on "the battle of
, not the war", chief Republican political strategist Karl Rove
explained : the war must continue, if only to control the population at
the 2002 elections Rove had instructed party activists to stress
security issues, diverting attention from unpopular Republican domestic
policies. All of this is second-nature to the re cycled Reaganites now
in office. That is how they held on to political power during their
first tenure in office. They regularly pushed the panic button to avoid
public opposition to the policies that had left Reagan as the most
disliked living president by 1992, by which time he may have ranked even
lower than Richard Nixon.
its narrow successes, the intensive propaganda campaign left the public
unswayed in fundamental respects. Most continue to prefer UN rather than
leadership in international crises, and by two to one prefer that the
UN, rather than the
, should direct reconstruction in
the occupying coalition army failed to discover WMD, the
administration's stance shifted from absolute certainty that
possessed WMD to the position that the accusations were "justified
by the discovery of equipment that potentially could be used to produce
weapons" (12). Senior officials then suggested a refinement in the
concept of preventive war, to entitle the
to attack a country that has "deadly weapons in mass
quantities". The revision "suggests that the administration
will act against a hostile regime that has nothing more than the intent
and ability to develop WMD" (13). Lowering the criteria for a
resort to force is the most significant consequence of the collapse of
the proclaimed argument for the invasion.
the most spectacular propaganda achievement was the praising of Bush's
vision to bring democracy to the
in the midst of an extraordinary display of hatred and contempt for
democracy. This was illustrated by the distinction that was made by
Washington between Old and New Europe, the former being reviled and the
latter hailed for its courage. The criterion was sharp: Old Europe
consists of governments that took the same position over the war on
as most of their populations; while the heroes of New Europe followed
, disregarding, in most cases, an even larger majority of citizens who
were against the war. Political commentators ranted about disobedient
Old Europe and its psychic maladies, while Congress descended to low
the liberal end of the spectrum, the former US ambassador to the UN,
Richard Holbrooke, stressed the "very important point" that
the population of the eight original members of New Europe is larger
than that of Old Europe, which proves that France and Germany are
"isolated". So it does, unless we succumb to the radical-left
heresy that the public might have some role in a democracy. Thomas
Friedman then urged that
be removed from the permanent members of the Security Council, because
it is "in kindergarten, and does not play well with others".
It follows that the population of New Europe must still be in nursery
school, at least judging by the polls (14).
was a particularly
instructive case. Its government resisted the heavy pressure from the
to prove its democratic credentials by following US orders and
overruling 95% of its population.
did not cooperate. US commentators were infuriated by this lesson in
democracy, so much so that some even reported Turkey's crimes against
the Kurds in the 1990s, previously a taboo topic because of the crucial
US role in what happened, although that was still carefully concealed in
crucial point was expressed by the deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul
Wolfowitz, who condemned the Turkish military because they "did not
play the strong leadership role that we would have expected" - that
is they did not intervene to prevent the Turkish government from
honouring near-unanimous public opinion.
had therefore to step up and say, "We made a mistake - let's figure
out how we can be as helpful as possible to the Americans" (15).
Wolfowitz's stand was particularly informative because he had been
portrayed as the leading figure in the administration's crusade to
at Old Europe has much deeper roots than just contempt for democracy.
has always regarded European unification with some ambivalence. In his
Year of Europe address 30 years ago, Henry Kissinger advised Europeans
to keep to their regional responsibilities within the "overall
framework of order managed by the
must not pursue its own independent course, based on its Franco-German
industrial and financial heartland.
US administration's concerns now extend as well to Northeast Asia, the
world's most dynamic economic region, with ample resources and advanced
industrial economies, a potentially integrated region that might also
flirt with challenging the overall framework of world order, which is to
be maintained permanently, by force if necessary, Washington has
Noam Chomsky is professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs, Sept.-Oct. 2002.
Wall Street Journal, 27 January 2003.
Michael Gordon, The New York Times, 18 March 2003.
Times, 23 March 2003.
The New York Times, 7 June 1991. Alan Cowell, The New York Times, 11
The New York Times, 4 June 2003.
Linda Rothstein, editor, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, July 2003.
Elisabeth Bumiller, The New York Times, 2 May 2003; transcript, 2 May
Jason Burke, The Observer,
18 May 2003.
Jeanne Cummings and Greg Hite, Wall Street Journal, 2 May 2003. Francis
Clines, The New York Times, 10 May 2003.
Program on International Policy Attitudes,
, April 18-22.
Post, 1 June 2003
Guy Dinmore and James Harding, Financial Times, 3/4 May 2003.
Lee Michael Katz, National Journal, 8 February 2003; Friedman, The New
York Times, 9 February 2003.
Marc Lacey, The New York Times, 7/8 May 2003.
(Le Monde diplomatique)
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