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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;

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