Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Don’t mention the (reasons for) war

Noam Chomsky analyses government and media misrepresentation of US strategic and military priorities

July 1, 2004
13 min read

US polling in Baghdad has found that a large majority of the local population believe the motive for the invasion of their country was to take control of their resources and reorganise the Middle East in accordance with US interests. It is not unusual for those at the wrong end of the club to have the clearer understanding of the world in which they live. The Iraqis” conclusions have been borne out by the revelations of former officials that the Bush administration knowingly increased the threat of terror to help it achieve its goals in Iraq. What is surprising is that the Western media is still solemnly debating whether the administration downgraded the “war on terror” in favour of its ambitions in Iraq.

There are plenty of current illustrations of the fact, obvious enough to Baghdadis, that Washington regards terror as a minor issue in comparison with ensuring that the Middle East is properly disciplined. There was a revealing example in April, when Bush imposed new sanctions on Syria by implementing the Syria Accountability Act. Passed by Congress in December, the act is a virtual declaration of war unless Damascus follows US commands. Syria is on the official list of states sponsoring terrorism, despite acknowledgment by the CIA that it has not been involved in any such activities for many years. It has, however, provided important intelligence to Washington on al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups, and it has also cooperated in other anti-terrorist actions.

The implementation of the Syria Accountability Act, passed nearly unanimously, deprives the US of a major source of information about radical Islamist terrorism in order to achieve the higher goal of establishing in Syria a regime that will accept US-Israeli demands. This is not an unusual pattern, though commentators continually find it surprising, no matter how strong and regular the evidence.

The act tells us a lot about state priorities and the prevailing doctrines of the intellectual and moral culture in the US, as international affairs scholar Steven Zunes has pointed out. Its core demand refers to UN Security Council Resolution 520, which calls for respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon. These are things that are currently being violated by Syria, because the latter still retains the forces there that were welcomed by the US and Israel in 1976. Then, the Syrian army’s task was to carry out massacres of Palestinians.

Overlooked by the Congressional legislation, and by news reporting and commentary, is the fact that Resolution 520, passed in 1982, was explicitly directed against Israel – not Syria. Also overlooked is the fact that while Israel violated this and other Security Council resolutions regarding Lebanon for 22 years, there was no call for any sanctions against it or for any reduction in the huge, unconditional military and economic aid it receives from the US. As Zunes puts it, the principle is very clear: “Lebanese sovereignty must be defended only if the occupying army is from a country the US opposes, but is dispensable if the country is a US ally.”

(A side observation: by two to one, the US population favours an “Israel Accountability Act” that would hold Israel accountable for development of WMD and for human rights abuses in the occupied territories. That, however, is not on the agenda or even reported.)

There are many other illustrations of US principles that are well established, internally rational, clear enough to the victims, but not perceptible to their agents in Washington. To mention one, the US Treasury bureau the Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac) is assigned the task of investigating suspicious financial transfers, and is a crucial component of the “war on terror”. Ofac has 120 employees. Several weeks ago it informed Congress that four of these are dedicated to tracking the finances of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, while almost two dozen are dedicated to enforcing the US’s embargo against Cuba (something that has been declared illegal, incidentally, by every relevant international organisation – even the usually compliant Organization of American States). From 1990 to 2003, Ofac informed Congress, there were 93 terrorism-related investigations resulting in $9,000 worth of fines, and 11,000 Cuba-related investigations resulting in $8m of fines. No interest was aroused among those now pondering whether the Bush administration – and its predecessors – downgraded the war on terror in favour of other priorities.

Why should the US Treasury devote vastly more energy to strangling Cuba than to the war on terror? The basic reasons were explained in secret documents from 40 years ago, when the Kennedy administration sought to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba, as Arthur Schlesinger recounted in his biography of Robert Kennedy, who ran these terror operations as his highest priority. State Department planners warned that the “very existence” of the Castro regime was “successful defiance” of US policies. Furthermore, this successful defiance encouraged others, who might be infected by the “Castro idea of taking matters into their own hands”. These dangers were particularly grave, Schlesinger elaborated, when “the distribution of land and other forms of national wealth greatly favours the propertied classes& The poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living”. The whole system of domination might unravel if the idea of taking matters into one’s own hands got a hold.

From the point of view of Washington planners, the ranking of current priorities is entirely rational. Terror might kill thousands of Americans; that much has been clear since the attempt by US-trained jihadis to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. But that is not considered important compared with establishing secure military bases in a dependent client state at the heart of the world’s major energy reserves. Concern that Europe and Asia might take a course independent of the US’s is the core problem of global dominance today, and has been a prime concern for many years. Henry Kissinger gave a “Year of Europe” address 30 years ago, in which he reminded his European underlings that their responsibility was to attend to their “regional responsibilities” within the “overall framework of order” managed by the US. The threat of a rival approach is even more severe today, extending, as it does, to the dynamic northeast Asian region. Control of the Gulf and Central Asia, therefore, becomes even more urgent, and this urgency is enhanced by the expectation that the Gulf will have an even more prominent role in world energy production in decades to come.

Turning to terror, there is a broad consensus among specialists on how to reduce the threat (keeping, now, to the sub-category that is doctrinally admissible – ie, their terror against us) and also on how to incite further terrorist atrocities, which sooner or later may become truly horrendous: it is just a matter of time before terror and WMD are linked, as was anticipated in technical literature well before 9/11.

By common consent, the best way to reduce the threat of terror is to adopt a two-pronged approach. Terrorists see themselves as a vanguard, seeking to mobilise others, welcoming a violent reaction that will serve their cause. The proper reaction to criminal acts is police work, which has been quite successful against terrorism in Europe, South and Southeast Asia and elsewhere. But much more important is the broad constituency whom the terrorists seek to mobilise: people who may hate and fear them, but who nevertheless see them as fighting for a cause that is right and just. Here the proper response is to pay attention to people’s grievances, which are often legitimate and should be addressed irrespective of any connection to terror.

Using violence to fight terror can succeed, but at tremendous cost. It can also provoke greater violence in response, and often does. Al-Qaeda and bin Laden were virtually unknown until Clinton bombed Sudan in 1998, after which the organisation achieved a sharp increase in recruitment and finance. The US bombing of Afghanistan the same year (with no credible pretext, as was later quietly conceded), further increased enthusiasm for “the cosmic struggle between good and evil”. And now we are considering threats to our survival.

The Bush administration has announced that it intends to deploy the first elements of its space-based missile-defence system in Alaska this summer – in time for the presidential elections. These plans have been criticised because they are obviously timed for partisan political purposes, they use untested technology at huge expense, and they probably won’t work. All of that may be correct, but there is a more serious criticism: the systems might work, or at least look as though they might work. In the logic of nuclear war, what counts is perception, not reality, and planners have to make worst-case analyses. It is understood on all sides that missile defence is an offensive weapon, which provides freedom for aggression, including a first nuclear strike. That is pretty much agreed by US analysts and potential targets, who even use the same words: a missile defence system is not just a “shield”, but also a “sword”.

Recently released documents reveal how the US reacted to a small anti-ballistic missile system deployed around Moscow in 1968. The US at once targeted the system and radar installations with nuclear weapons. Current US plans are expected to provoke a similar Russian response, though now it is all on a much larger scale. China is likely to react the same way, maybe even more so, since a missile-defence system would undermine the credibility of its currently very limited deterrent. That may have a ripple effect: India may react to expansion of China’s offensive strategic weapons, Pakistan to India’s expansion, and so on. Those prospects are of real concern.

Not discussed, in the US at least, is the threat from West Asia. Israel’s nuclear capacities, supplemented by other WMD, are regarded as “dangerous in the extreme” by the former head of the US Strategic Command General Lee Butler, not only because of the threat they pose, but also because they stimulate proliferation. The Bush administration is now enhancing that threat. Israel’s military analysts allege that its air and armoured forces are larger and technologically more advanced than those of any Nato power apart from the US. This is not because this small country is powerful in itself, but because it serves as a virtual offshore military base and high-tech centre for the US. Washington is now sending Israel more than 100 of its most advanced jet bombers – the F16I, an updated version of the F16s that Israel used to bomb Iraq’s Tuwaythah nuclear reactor in 1981. (It was known at once that the bombed reactor had no real capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Later evidence from Iraqi scientists who fled to the West revealed that instead of retarding Saddam’s nuclear weapons programme, the Israeli bombing actually initiated it, in the familiar cycle of violence.) The F16I is advertised very clearly as capable of flying to Iran and back. The Israeli press now also reports (only in Hebrew) that the US is sending the Israeli air force “special” weapons. Iranian intelligence, to whose ears these reports are presumably directed, will make a worst-case analysis: that these special weapons may be nuclear warheads for Israeli bombers. These very visible moves are intended perhaps to incite some Iranian action that will be pretext for an attack; perhaps just to rattle the Iranian leadership and contribute to internal conflict and chaos. Whatever the goal, the likely consequences are not attractive.

Back in Iraq, meanwhile, we are all now familiar with the collapse of the Bush-Blair pretexts for invading the country. But insufficient attention has been paid to the most important consequence of this collapse: the way it has lowered the threshold of aggression. The need to establish ties to terror was quietly dropped. More significantly, the Bush administration now assumes the right to attack a country even if it has no WMD or programmes to develop them; the “intent and ability” to develop them is sufficient. Just about every country has the “ability” to develop WMD, and “intent” is in the eye of the beholder. It follows that virtually anyone might be subject to devastating attack without pretext.

Capabilities to carry out these plans are being enhanced by new military programmes. One of these programmes is missile defence, which is intended to advance US ambitions from “control of space” for military purposes (the Clinton goal) to “ownership of space” allowing “instant engagement anywhere in world”. The latter would put any part of the world at risk of instant destruction.

The world’s intelligence agencies can read the US Air Force Space Command Strategic Master Plan, as easily as I can. And they will draw appropriate conclusions, thus increasing the risk to all of us. We should recall that history – including recent history – offers many examples of leaders consciously enhancing very serious threats in pursuit of narrow power interests. Now, however, the stakes are much higher.

The ability of the Bush administration to continue pursuing its ambitions in the Middle East, knowing the consequences for the spread of terror, is vital to its power over these higher stakes. But the steadfast refusal of Iraqis to accept the traditional “constitutional fictions” has compelled Washington to yield step-by-step concessions. The Iraqis have received some assistance from “the second superpower”, as The New York Times described world public opinion after the huge anti-war demonstrations of February 2003. Those demonstrations marked the first time in the history of Europe and its offshoots that mass protests against a war took place before that war had even been officially launched. That makes a difference. Had the problems of Falluja, for example, arisen in the 1960s, they would have been resolved by B-52s and mass murder operations on the ground. Today, a more civilised society will not tolerate such measures. This provides at least some space for the victims to act to gain authentic independence. It is even possible that the Bush administration may have to abandon its original war plans, well understood by Iraqis, though kept in the shadows in the societies of the occupiers.

At this point, crucial questions arise about the nature of industrial democracy and its future – extremely important questions. The survival of the species is at stake, literally. But that is for another time.

This is an edited extract of the Olof Palme Lecture, which Noam Chomsky delivered in Oxford in May 2004; www.chomsky.info

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee