CHOMSKY ON IRAQ
In writing on 1 Sept 2002 journalist Michael Albert asked a dozen timely questions of Professor Noam Chomsky. The full responses appear in the upcoming issue of Z Magazine.
Here are the first three questions and answers.
1. Has Saddam Hussein been as evil as mainstream media says?
He is as evil as they come, ranking with Suharto and other monsters of
the modern era. No one would want to be within his reach. But
fortunately, his reach does not extend very far.
Internationally, Saddam invaded Iran (with Western support), and when
that war was going badly turned to chemical weapons (also with Western
support). He invaded Kuwait and was quickly driven out.
A major concern in Washington right after the invasion was that Saddam
would quickly withdraw, putting "his puppet in [and] everyone in the
Arab world will be happy" (Colin Powell, then Chief of Staff). President
Bush was concerned that Saudi Arabia might "bug out at the last minute
and accept a puppet regime in Kuwait" unless the US prevented Iraqi
The concern, in brief, was that Saddam would pretty much duplicate what
the US had just done in Panama (except that Latin Americans were
anything but happy). From the first moment the US sought to avert this
"nightmare scenario." A story that should be looked at with some care.
Saddam's worst crimes, by far, have been domestic, including the use of
chemical weapons against Kurds and a huge slaughter of Kurds in the late
80s, barbaric torture, and every other ugly crime you can imagine. These
are at the top of the list of terrible crimes for which he is now
condemned, rightly. It's useful to ask how frequently the impassioned
denunciations and eloquent expressions of outrage are accompanied by
three little words: "with our help."
The crimes were well known at once, but of no particular concern to the
West. Saddam received some mild reprimands; harsh congressional
condemnation was considered too extreme by prominent commentators. The
Reaganites and Bush #1 continued to welcome the monster as an ally and
valued trading partner right through his worst atrocities and well
Bush authorized loan guarantees and sale of advanced technology with
clear applications for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) right up to the
day of the Kuwait invasion, sometimes overriding congressional efforts
to prevent what he was doing. Britain was still authorizing export of
military equipment and radioactive materials a few days after the
When ABC correspondent and now ZNet Commentator Charles Glass discovered
biological weapons facilities (using commercial satellites and defector
testimony), his revelations were immediately denied by the Pentagon and
the story disappeared. It was resurrected when Saddam committed his
first real crime, disobeying US orders (or perhaps misinterpreting them)
by invading Kuwait, and switched instantly from friend to reincarnation
of Attila the Hun.
The same facilities were then used to demonstrate his innately evil
nature. When Bush #1 announced new gifts to his friend in December 1989
(also gifts to US agribusiness and industry), it was considered too
insignificant even to report, though one could read about it in Z
magazine at the time, maybe nowhere else.
A few months later, shortly before he invaded Kuwait, a high-level
Senate delegation, headed by (later) Republican presidential candidate
Bob Dole, visited Saddam, conveying the President's greetings and
assuring the brutal mass murderer that he should disregard the criticism
he hears from maverick reporters here.
Saddam had even been able to get away with attacking a US naval vessel,
the USS Stark, killing several dozen crewmen. That is a mark of real
esteem. The only other country to have been granted that privilege was
Israel, in 1967. In deference to Saddam, the State Department banned all
contacts with the Iraqi democratic opposition, maintaining this policy
even after the Gulf war, while Washington effectively authorized Saddam
to crush a Shi'ite rebellion that might well have overthrown him -- in
the interest of preserving "stability," the press explained, nodding
That he's a major criminal is not in doubt. That's not changed by the
fact that the US and Britain regarded his major atrocities as
insignificant in the light of higher "reasons of state," before the Gulf
war and even after -- facts best forgotten.
2. Looking into the future, is Saddam Hussein as dangerous as mainstream
The world would be better off if he weren't there, no doubt about that.
Surely Iraqis would. But he can't be anywhere near as dangerous as he
was when the US and Britain were supporting him, even providing him with
dual-use technology that he could use for nuclear and chemical weapons
development, as he presumably did.
10 years ago the Senate Banking Committee hearings revealed that the
Bush administration was granting licences for dual use technology and
"materials which were later utilized by the Iraq regime for nuclear
missile and chemical purposes." Later hearings added more, and there are
press reports and a mainstream scholarly literature on the topic (as
well as dissident literature).
The 1991 war was extremely destructive, and since then Iraq has been
devastated by a decade of sanctions, which probably strengthened Saddam
himself (by weakening possible resistance in a shattered society), but
surely reduced very significantly his capacity for war-making or support
Furthermore, since 1991 his regime has been constrained by "no fly
zones," regular overflights and bombing, and very tight surveillance.
Chances are that the events of Sept. 11 weakened him still further. If
there are any links between Saddam and al-Qaeda, they would be far more
difficult to maintain now because of the sharply intensified
surveillance and controls.
That aside, links are not very likely. Despite enormous efforts to tie
Saddam to the 9-11 attacks, nothing has been found, which is not too
surprising. Saddam and bin Laden were bitter enemies, and there's no
particular reason to suppose that there have been any changes in that
The rational conclusion is that Saddam is probably less of a danger now
than before 9-11, and far less of a threat than when he was enjoying
substantial support from the US-UK (and many others). That raises a few
questions. If Saddam is such a threat to the survival of civilization
today that the global enforcer has to resort to war, why wasn't that
true a year ago? And much more dramatically, in early 1990?
3. How should the problem of the existence and use of weapons of mass
destruction in the world today be dealt with?
They should be eliminated. The non-proliferation treaty commits
countries with nuclear weapons to take steps towards eliminating them.
The biological and chemical weapons treaties have the same goals. The
main Security Council resolution concerning Iraq (687, 1991) calls for
eliminating weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems from the
Middle East, and working towards a global ban on chemical weapons. Good
Iraq is nowhere near the lead in this regard. We might recall the
warning of General Lee Butler, head of Clinton's Strategic Command in
the early 90s, that "it is dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron
of animosities that we call the Middle East, one nation has armed
itself, ostensibly, with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, perhaps
numbering in the hundreds, and that inspires other nations to do so."
He's talking about Israel of course. The Israeli military authorities
claim to have air and armored forces that are larger and more advanced
than those of any European NATO power (Yitzhak ben Israel, Ha'aretz,
4-16-02, Hebrew). They also announce that 12% of their bombers and
fighter aircraft are permanently stationed in Eastern Turkey, along with
comparable naval and submarine forces in Turkish bases, and armored
forces as well, in case it becomes necessary to resort to extreme
violence once again to subdue Turkey's Kurdish population, as in the
Israeli aircraft based in Turkey are reported to be flying reconnaisance
flights along Iran's borders, part of a general US-Israel-Turkey policy
of threatening Iran with attack and perhaps forceful partitioning.
Israeli analysts also report that joint US-Israel-Turkey air exercises
are intended as a threat and warning to Iran. And of course to Iraq
(Robert Olson, Middle East Policy, June 2002). Israel is doubtless using
the huge US air bases in Eastern Turkey, where the US bombers are
presumably nuclear-armed. By now Israel is virtually an offshore US
And the rest of the area is armed to the teeth as well. If Iraq were
governed by Gandhi, it would be developing weapons systems if it could,
probably well beyond what it can today. That would very likely continue,
perhaps even accelerate, if the US takes control of Iraq. India and
Pakistan are US allies, but are marching forward with the development of
WMD and repeatedly have come agonizingly close to using nuclear weapons.
The same is true of other US allies and clients.
That is likely to continue unless there is a general reduction of
armaments in the area.
Would Saddam agree to that? Actually, we don't know. In early January
1991, Iraq apparently offered to withdraw from Kuwait in the context of
regional negotiations on reduction of armaments, an offer that State
Department officials described as serious and negotiable. But we know no
more about it, because the US rejected it without response and the press
reported virtually nothing.
It is, however, of some interest that at that time -- right before the
bombing -- polls revealed that by 2-1 the US public supported the
proposal that Saddam had apparently made, preferring it to bombing. Had
people been allowed to know any of this, the majority would surely have
been far greater. Suppressing the facts was an important service to the
cause of state violence.
Could such negotiations have gotten anywhere? Only fanatical ideologues
can be confident. Could such ideas be revived? Same answer. One way to
find out is to try.