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Noam Chomsky: Why Isn’t Iraq in the 2008 Election?

March 6, 2008 by  


By Noam Chomsky, Democracy Now!

The following speech, transcribed by Democracy Now!, was delivered by Chomsky in Massachussetts at an event sponsored by Bikes Not Bombs:

Not very long ago, as you all recall, it was taken for granted that the Iraq war would be the central issue in the 2008 election, as it was in the midterm election two years ago. However, it’s virtually disappeared off the radar screen, which has solicited some puzzlement among the punditry.

Actually, the reason is not very obscure. It was cogently explained forty years ago, when the US invasion of South Vietnam was in its fourth year and the surge of that day was about to add another 100,000 troops to the 175,000 already there, while South Vietnam was being bombed to shreds at triple the level of the bombing of the north and the war was expanding to the rest of Indochina. However, the war was not going very well, so the former hawks were shifting towards doubts, among them the distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, maybe the most distinguished historian of his generation, a Kennedy adviser, who — when he and Kennedy, other Kennedy liberals were beginning to — reluctantly beginning to shift from a dedication to victory to a more dovish position.

And Schlesinger explained the reasons. He explained that — I’ll quote him now — “Of course, we all pray that the hawks are right in thinking that the surge of that day will work. And if it does, we may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government in winning a victory in a land that we have turned,” he said, “to wreck and ruin. But the surge probably won’t work, at an acceptable cost to us, so perhaps strategy should be rethought.”

Well, the reasoning and the underlying attitudes carry over with almost no change to the critical commentary on the US invasion of Iraq today. And it is a land of wreck and ruin. You’ve already heard a few words; I don’t have to review the facts. The highly regarded British polling agency, Oxford Research Bureau, has just updated its estimate of deaths. Their new estimate a couple of days ago is 1.3 million. That’s excluding two of the most violent provinces, Karbala and Anbar. On the side, it’s kind of intriguing to observe the ferocity of the debate over the actual number of deaths. There’s an assumption on the part of the hawks that if we only killed a couple hundred thousand people, it would be OK, so we shouldn’t accept the higher estimates. You can go along with that if you like.

Uncontroversially, there are over two million displaced within Iraq. Thanks to the generosity of Jordan and Syria, the millions of refugees who have fled the wreckage of Iraq aren’t totally wiped out. That includes most of the professional classes. But that welcome is fading, because Jordan and Syria receive no support from the perpetrators of the crimes in Washington and London, and therefore they cannot accept that huge burden for very long. It’s going to leave those two-and-a-half million refugees who fled in even more desperate straits.

The sectarian warfare that was created by the invasion never — nothing like that had ever existed before. That has devastated the country, as you know. Much of the country has been subjected to quite brutal ethnic cleansing and left in the hands of warlords and militias. That’s the primary thrust of the current counterinsurgency strategy that’s developed by the revered “Lord Petraeus,” I guess we should describe him, considering the way he’s treated. He won his fame by pacifying Mosul a couple of years ago. It’s now the scene of some of the most extreme violence in the country.

One of the most dedicated and informed journalists who has been immersed in the ongoing tragedy, Nir Rosen, has just written an epitaph entitled “The Death of Iraq” in the very mainstream and quite important journal Current History. He writes that “Iraq has been killed, never to rise again. The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols, who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century,” which has been the perception of many Iraqis, as well. “Only fools talk of ‘solutions’ now,” he went on. “There is no solution. The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained.”

But Iraq is, in fact, the marginal issue, and the reasons are the traditional ones, the traditional reasoning and attitudes of the liberal doves who all pray now, as they did forty years ago, that the hawks will be right and that the US will win a victory in this land of wreck and ruin. And they’re either encouraged or silenced by the good news about Iraq.

And there is good news. The US occupying army in Iraq — euphemistically it’s called the Multi-National Force-Iraq, because they have, I think, three polls there somewhere — that the occupying army carries out extensive studies of popular attitudes. It’s an important part of counterinsurgency or any form of domination. You want to know what your subjects are thinking. And it released a report last December. It was a study of focus groups, and it was uncharacteristically upbeat. The report concluded — I’ll quote it — that the survey of focus groups “provides very strong evidence” that national reconciliation is possible and anticipated, contrary to what’s being claimed. The survey found that a sense of “optimistic possibility permeated all focus groups and far more commonalities than differences are found among these seemingly diverse groups of Iraqis” from all over the country and all walks of life. This discovery of “shared beliefs” among Iraqis throughout the country is “good news, according to a military analysis of the results,” Karen de Young reported in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago.

Well, the “shared beliefs” are identified in the report. I’ll quote de Young: “Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the US military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of [what they call] ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation.” So those are the “shared beliefs.” According to the Iraqis then, there’s hope of national reconciliation if the invaders, who are responsible for the internal violence and the other atrocities, if they withdraw and leave Iraq to Iraqis. That’s pretty much the same as what’s been found in earlier polls, so it’s not all that surprising. Well, that’s the good news: “shared beliefs.”

The report didn’t mention some other good news, so I’ll add it. Iraqis, it appears, accept the highest values of Americans. That ought to be good news. Specifically, they accept the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal that sentenced Nazi war criminals to hanging for such crimes as supporting aggression and preemptive war. It was the main charge against von Ribbentrop, for example, whose position was — in the Nazi regime was that of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. The Tribunal defined aggression very straightforwardly: aggression, in its words, is the “invasion of its armed forces” by one state “of the territory of another state.” That’s simple. Obviously, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan are textbook examples of aggression. And the Tribunal, as I’m sure you know, went on to characterize aggression as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself all the accumulated evil of the whole.” So everything that follows from the aggression is part of the evil of the aggression.

Well, the good news from the US military survey of focus groups is that Iraqis do accept the Nuremberg principles. They understand that sectarian violence and the other postwar horrors are contained within the supreme international crime committed by the invaders. I think they were not asked whether their acceptance of American values extends to the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor for the United States at Nuremberg. He forcefully insisted that the Tribunal would be mere farce if we do not apply the principles to ourselves.

Well, needless to say, US opinion, shared with the West generally, flatly rejects the lofty American values that were professed at Nuremberg, indeed regards them as bordering on obscene, as you could quickly discover if you try experimenting by suggesting that these values should be observed, as Iraqis insist. It’s an interesting illustration of the reality, some of the reality, that lies behind the famous “clash of civilizations.” Maybe not exactly the way we like to look at it.

There was a poll a few days ago, a really major poll, just released, which found that 75 percent of Americans believe that US foreign policy is driving the dissatisfaction with America abroad, and more than 60 percent believe that dislike of American values and of the American people are also to blame. Dissatisfaction is a kind of an understatement. The United States has become increasingly the most feared and often hated country in the world. Well, that perception is in fact incorrect. It’s fed by propaganda. There’s very little dislike of Americans in the world, shown by repeated polls, and the dissatisfaction — that is, the hatred and the anger — they come from acceptance of American values, not a rejection of them, and recognition that they’re rejected by the US government and by US elites, which does lead to hatred and anger.

There’s other “good news” that’s been reported by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker that was during the extravaganza that was staged last September 11th. September 11th, you might ask why the timing? Well, a cynic might imagine that the timing was intended to insinuate the Bush-Cheney claims of links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. They can’t come out and say it straight out, so therefore you sort of insinuate it by devices like this. It’s intended to indicate, as they used to say outright but are now too embarrassed to say, except maybe Cheney, that by committing the supreme international crime, they were defending the world against terror, which, in fact, increased sevenfold as a result of the invasion, according to a recent analysis by terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank.

Petraeus and Crocker provided figures to explain the good news. The figures they provided on September 11th showed that the Iraqi government was greatly accelerating spending on reconstruction, which is good news indeed and remained so until it was investigated by the Government Accountability Office, which found that the actual figure was one-sixth of what Petraeus and Crocker reported and, in fact, a 50 percent decline from the previous year.

Well, more good news is the decline in sectarian violence, that’s attributable in part to the murderous ethnic cleansing that Iraqis blame on the invasion. The result of it is there are simply fewer people to kill, so sectarian violence declines. It’s also attributable to the new counterinsurgency doctrine, Washington’s decision to support the tribal groups that had already organized to drive out Iraqi al-Qaeda, to an increase in US troops, and to the decision of the Sadr’s Mahdi army to consolidate its gains to stop direct fighting. And politically, that’s what the press calls “halting aggression” by the Mahdi army. Notice that only Iraqis can commit aggression in Iraq, or Iranians, of course, but no one else.

Well, it’s possible that Petraeus’s strategy may approach the success of the Russians in Chechnya, where — I’ll quote The New York Times a couple of weeks ago — Chechnya, the fighting is now “limited and sporadic, and Grozny is in the midst of a building boom” after having been reduced to rubble by the Russian attack. Well, maybe some day Baghdad and Fallujah also will enjoy, to continue the quote, “electricity restored in many neighborhoods, new businesses opening and the city’s main streets repaved,” as in booming Grozny. Possible, but dubious, in the light of the likely consequence of creating warlord armies that may be the seeds of even greater sectarian violence, adding to the “accumulated evil” of the aggression. Well, if Russians share the beliefs and attitudes of elite liberal intellectuals in the West, then they must be praising Putin’s “wisdom and statesmanship” for his achievements in Chechnya, formerly that they had turned into a land of wreck and ruin and are now rebuilding. Great achievement.

A few days ago, The New York Times — the military and Iraq expert of The New York Times, Michael Gordon, wrote a comprehensive review, first-page comprehensive review, of the options for Iraq that are being faced by the candidates. And he went through them in detail, described the pluses and minuses and so on, interviewing political leaders, the candidates, experts, etc. There was one voice missing: Iraqis. Their preference is not rejected; rather, it’s not mentioned. And it seems that there was no notice of that fact, which makes sense, because it’s typical. It makes sense on the tacit assumption that underlies almost all discourse on international affairs. The tacit assumption, without which none of it makes any sense, is that we own the world. So, what does it matter what others think? They’re “unpeople,” nice term invented by British diplomatic historian [Mark] Curtis, based on a series of outstanding volumes on Britain’s crimes of empire — outstanding work, therefore deeply hidden. So there are the “unpeople” out there, and then there are the owners — that’s us — and we don’t have to listen to the “unpeople.”

Last month, Panama declared a Day of Mourning to commemorate the US invasion — that’s under George Bush no. 1 — that killed thousands of poor Panamanians when the US bombed the El Chorillo slums and other poor areas, so Panamanian human rights organizations claim. We don’t actually know, because we never count our crimes. Victors don’t do that; only the defeated. It aroused no interest here; there’s barely a mention of the Day of Mourning. And there’s also no interest in the fact that Bush 1′s invasion of Panama was a clear case of aggression, to which the Nuremberg principles apply, and it was apparently more deadly, in fact possibly much more deadly, than Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, happened a few months later. But it makes sense that there would be no interest in that, because we own the world, and Saddam didn’t, so the acts are quite different.

It’s also of no interest that, at that time of the time of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the greatest fear in Washington was that Saddam would imitate what the United States had just done in Panama, namely install a client government and then leave. That’s the main reason why Washington blocked diplomacy in quite interesting ways, with almost complete media cooperation. There’s actually one exception in the US media. But none of this gets any commentary. However, it does merit a lead story a few days later, when the Panamanian National Assembly was opened by President Pedro Gonzalez, who’s charged by Washington with killing two American soldiers during a protest against President Bush no.1, against his visit two years after the invasion. The charges were dismissed by Panamanian courts, but they’re upheld by the owner of the world, so he can’t travel, and that got a story.

Well, to take just one last illustration of the depth of the imperial mentality, New York Times correspondent Elaine Sciolino, veteran correspondent, writes that “Iran’s intransigence [about nuclear enrichment] appears to be defeating attempts by the rest of the world to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.” Well, the phrase “the rest of the world” is an interesting one. The rest of the world happens to exclude the vast majority of the world, namely the non-aligned movement, which forcefully endorses Iran’s right to enrich uranium in accordance with the rights granted by its being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But they’re not part of the world, even though they’re the large majority, because they don’t reflexively accept US orders, and commentary like that is unremarkable and unnoticed. You’re part of the world if you do what we say, obviously. Otherwise, you’re “unpeople.”

Well, we might, since we’re on Iran, might tarry for a moment and ask whether there’s any solution to the US-Iran confrontation over nuclear weapons, which is extremely dangerous. Here’s one idea. First point, Iran should be permitted to develop nuclear energy, but not nuclear weapons, as the Non-Proliferation Treaty determines.

Second point is that there should be a nuclear weapons-free zone in the entire region, Iran to Israel, including any US forces that are present there. Actually, though it’s never reported, the United States is committed to that position. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it appealed to a UN resolution, Resolution 687, which called upon Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction. That was the flimsy legal principle invoked to justify the invasion. And if you look at Resolution 687, you discover that one of its provisions is that the US and other powers must work to develop a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, including that entire region. So we’re committed to it, and that’s the second element of this proposal.

The third element of the proposal is that the United States should accept the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a position which happens to be supported by 82 percent of Americans, namely that it should accept the requirement, in fact the legal requirement, as the World Court determined, to move to make good-faith efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.

And a fourth proposal is that the US should turn to diplomacy, and it should end any threats against Iran. The threats are themselves crimes. They’re in violation of the UN Charter, which bars the threat or use of force.

Well, of course, these four proposals — again, Iran should have nuclear energy, but not nuclear weapons; there should be a weapons-free zone throughout the region; the US should accept the Non-Proliferation Treaty; there should be a turn to diplomacy and an end to threats — these are almost unmentionable in the United States. Not a single candidate would endorse any part of them, and they’re never discussed, and so on.

However, the proposals are not original. They happen to be the position of the overwhelming majority of the American population. And interestingly, that’s also true in Iran; roughly the same overwhelming majority accepts all of these proposals. But that’s — the results come from the world’s most prestigious polling agency, but not reported, as far as I could discover, and certainly not considered. If they were ever mentioned, they would be dismissed with the phrase “politically impossible,” which is probably correct. It’s only the position of the large majority of the population, kind of like national health care, but not of the people that count. So there are plenty of “unpeople” here, too — in fact, the large majority. Americans share this property of being “unpeople” with most of the rest of the world. In fact, if the United States and Iran were functioning, not merely formal, democracies, then this dangerous crisis might be readily resolved by a functioning democracy — I mean, one in which public opinion plays some role in determining policy, rather than being excluded — in fact, unmentioned, because, after all, they’re “unpeople.”

Well, while we’re on Iran, I guess I might as well turn to the third member of the famous Axis of Evil: North Korea. There is an official story — read it right now — is that the official story is this, that after having been compelled to accept an agreement on dismantling its nuclear weapons and the facilities, after having been compelled to agree to that, North Korea is again trying to evade its commitments in its usual devious way. So The New York Times headline reads “The United States Sees Stalling by North Korea on Nuclear Pact.” And the article then details the charges of how North Korea is not going through with its responsibility. It’s not releasing information that it’s promised to release. If you read the story to the last paragraph — and that’s always a good idea; that’s where the interesting news usually is when you read a news story — but if you manage to get to the last paragraph, you discover that it’s the United States that has backed down on the pledges made in the agreement.

The US just refused to supply it. It’s refused only — it’s supplied only 85 percent of the fuel that it promised, and it was supposed to improve diplomatic relations, of course not doing that. Well, that’s quite normal.

If you want to find out what’s going on in the US-North Korea nuclear standoff, it’s better — you have to go to the specialist literature, which is uniform on it, nothing hidden, and in fact sort of sneaks out into small print in the press reports, as I mentioned. What you find is that North — I mean, North Korea may be the most hideous state in the world, but that’s not the point here. Its position has been pretty pragmatic. It’s kind of tit-for-tat. The United States gets more aggressive, they get more aggressive. The United States moves towards diplomacy and negotiations, they do the same.

So when President Bush came in, there was an agreement — it was called the Framework Agreement that had been established in 1994 — and neither the US nor North Korea was quite living up to it. But it was more or less functioning. At that time, North Korea, under the Framework Agreement, had stopped any testing of long-range missiles. It had maybe one or two bombs worth of plutonium, and it was verifiably not making more. Now, that was when George Bush entered the scene. And now it has eight to ten bombs, long-range missiles, and it’s developing plutonium.

And there’s a reason. The Bush regime immediately moved to a very aggressive stance. The Axis of Evil speech was one example. Intelligence was released claiming that North Korea was carrying out — was cheating, had clandestine programs. It’s rather interesting that these intelligence reports, five years later, have been quietly rescinded as probably inadequate. The reason presumably is that if an agreement is reached, there will be inspectors in North Korea, and they’ll find that this intelligence had as much validity as the claims about Iraq, so they’re being withdrawn. Well, North Korea responded to all of this by ratcheting up its missile and weapons development.

In September 2005, under pressure, the United States did agree to negotiations, and there was an outcome. September 2005, North Korea agreed to abandon — quoting — “all nuclear weapons and existing weapons programs” and to allow international inspection. That would be in return for international aid, mainly from the United States, and a non-aggression pledge from the US and an agreement that the two sides — I’m quoting — would “respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize relations.”

Well, the United States, the Bush administration, had an instant reaction. It instantly renewed the threat of force. It froze North Korean funds in foreign banks. It disbanded the consortium that was supposed meet to provide North Korea with a light-water reactor. So North Korea returned to its weapons and missile development, carried out a weapons test, and confrontation escalated. Well, again, under international pressure and with its foreign policy collapsing, Washington returned to negotiations. That led to an agreement, which Washington is now scuttling.

There’s an earlier history, an interesting one. You recall a couple of weeks ago, there was a mysterious Israeli bombing in northern Syria, never explained, but it a sort of hinted that this had something to do with Syria building nuclear facilities with the help of North Korea. Pretty unlikely, but whether it’s true or not, there’s an interesting background, which wasn’t mentioned. In 1993, Israel and North Korea were on the verge of an agreement, in which Israel would recognize North Korea and in return North Korea would agree to terminate any weapons-related — missile, nuclear, other — any weapons-related activity in the Middle East. That would have been an enormous boon to Israel’s security. But the owner of the world stepped in. Clinton ordered them to refuse. Of course, you have to listen to the master’s voice. So that ended that. And it may be that there are North Korean activities in the Middle East that we don’t know about.

Well, let me finally return to the first member of the Axis of Evil: Iraq. Washington does have expectations, and they’re explicit. There are outlined in a Declaration of Principles that was agreed upon, if you can call it that, between the United States and the US-backed, US-installed Iraqi government, a government under military occupation. The two of them issued the Declaration of Principles. It allows US forces to remain indefinitely in Iraq in order to “deter foreign aggression” — well, the only aggression in sight is from the United States, but that’s not aggression, by definition — and also to facilitate and encourage “the flow of foreign investments [to] Iraq, especially American investments.” I’m quoting. That’s an unusually brazen expression of imperial will.

In fact, it was heightened a few days ago, when George Bush issued another one of his signing statements declaring that he will reject crucial provisions of congressional legislation that he had just signed, including the provision that forbids spending taxpayer money — I’m quoting — “to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of [United States} Armed Forces in Iraq" or "to exercise [United States] control of the oil resources of Iraq.” OK? Shortly after, the New York Times reported that Washington “insists” — if you own the world, you insist — “insists that the Baghdad government give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations,” a demand that “faces a potential buzz saw of opposition from Iraq, with itsdeep sensitivities about being seen as a dependent state.” It’s supposed to be more third world irrationality.

So, in brief, the United States is now insisting that Iraq must agree to allow permanent US military installations, provide the United — grant the United States the right to conduct combat operations freely, and to guarantee US control over the oil resources of Iraq. OK? It’s all very explicit, on the table. It’s kind of interesting that these reports do not elicit any reflection on the reasons why the United States invaded Iraq. You’ve heard those reasons offered, but they were dismissed with ridicule. Now they’re openly conceded to be accurate, but not eliciting any retraction or even any reflection.

Professor of linguistics at MIT for over half a century, Chomsky is the author of dozens of books on US foreign policy. His most recent is The Essential Chomsky.

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