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||| Confronting the Empire |||
Noam Chomsky

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Polls reveal more support for the planned war in the US than elsewhere, but the numbers are misleading. It is important to bear in mind that the US is the only country outside Iraq where Saddam Hussein is not only reviled but also feared. There is a flood of lurid propaganda warning that if we do not stop him today he will destroy us tomorrow. The next evidence of his weapons of mass destruction may be a “mushroom cloud,” so National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice announced in September – presumably over New York. No one in Iraq’s neighborhood seems overly concerned, much as they may hate the murderous tyrant. Perhaps that is because they know that as a result of the sanctions “the vast majority of the country’s population has been on a semi-starvation diet for years,” as the World Health Organization reported, and that Iraq is one of the weakest states in the region: its economy and military expenditures are a fraction of Kuwait’s, which has 10% of Iraq’s population, and much farther below others nearby.

But the US is different. When Congress granted the President authority to go to war last October, it was “to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” We must tremble in fear before this awesome threat, while countries nearby seek to reintegrate Iraq into the region, including those who were attacked by Saddam when he was a friend and ally of those who now run the show in Washington -- and who were happily providing him with aid including the means to develop WMD, at a time when he was far more dangerous than today and had already committed by far his worst crimes.

A serious measure of support for war in the US would have to extricate this “fear factor,” which is genuine, and unique to the US. The residue would give a more realistic measure of support for the resort to violence, and would show, I think, that it is about the same as elsewhere.

It is also rather striking that strong opposition to the coming war extends right through the establishment. The current issues of the two major foreign policy journals feature articles opposing the war by leading figures of foreign policy elites. The very respectable American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a long monograph on the war, trying to give the most sympathetic possible account of the Bush administration position, then dismantling it point by point. One respected analyst they quote is a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who warns that the US is becoming “a menace to itself and to mankind” under its current leadership. There are no precedents for anything like this.

We should recognize that these criticisms tend to be narrow. They are concerned with threats to the US and its allies. They do not take into account the likely effects on Iraqis: the warnings of the UN and aid agencies that millions may be at very serious risk in a country that is at the edge of survival after a terrible war that targeted its basic infrastructure – which amounts to biological warfare -- and a decade of devastating sanctions that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and blocked any reconstruction, while strengthening the brutal tyrant who rules Iraq. It is also interesting that the criticisms do not even take the trouble to mention the lofty rhetoric about democratization and liberation. Presumably, the critics take for granted that the rhetoric is intended for intellectuals and editorial writers – who are not supposed to notice that the drive to war is accompanied by a dramatic demonstration of hatred of democracy, just as they are supposed to forget the record of those who are leading the campaign. That is also why none of this is ever brought up at the UN.

Nevertheless, the threats that do concern establishment critics are very real. They were surely not surprised when the CIA informed Congress last October that they know of no link between Iraq and al Qaeda-style terrorism, but that an attack on Iraq would probably increase the terrorist threat to the West, in many ways. It is likely to inspire a new generation of terrorists bent on revenge, and it might induce Iraq to carry out terrorist actions that are already in place, a possibility taken very seriously by US analysts. A high-level task force of the Council on Foreign Relations just released a report warning of likely terrorist attacks that could be far worse than 9-11, including possible use of WMD right within the US, dangers that become “more urgent by the prospect of the US going to war with Iraq.” They provide many illustrations, virtually a cook-book for terrorists. It is not the first; similar ones were published by prominent strategic analysts long before 9-11.

It is also understood that an attack on Iraq may lead not just to more terror, but also to proliferation of WMD, for a simple reason: potential targets of the US recognize that there is no other way to deter the most powerful state in history, which is pursuing “America’s Imperial Ambition,” posing serious dangers to the US and the world, the author warns in the main establishment journal, Foreign Affairs. Prominent hawks warn that a war in Iraq might lead to the “greatest proliferation disaster in history.” They know that if Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, the dictatorship keeps them under tight control. They understand further that except as a last resort if attacked, Iraq is highly unlikely to use any WMD it has, thus inviting instant incineration. And it is also highly unlikely to leak them to the Osama bin Ladens of the world, which would be a terrible threat to Saddam Hussein himself, quite apart from the reaction if there is even a hint that this might take place. But under attack, the society would collapse, including the controls over WMD. These would be “privatized,” terrorism experts point out, and offered to the huge “market for unconventional weapons, where they will have no trouble finding buyers.” That really is a “nightmare scenario,” just as the hawks warn.

Even before the Bush administration began beating the war drums about Iraq, there were plenty of warnings that its adventurism was going to lead to proliferation of WMD, as well as terror, simply as a deterrent. Right now, Washington is teaching the world a very ugly and dangerous lesson: if you want to defend yourself from us, you had better mimic North Korea and pose a credible military threat, including WMD. Otherwise we will demolish you in pursuit of the new “grand strategy” that has caused shudders not only among the usual victims, and in “old Europe,” but right at the heart of the US foreign policy elite, who recognize that “commitment of the US to active military confrontation for decisive national advantage will leave the world more dangerous and the US less secure” – again, quoting respected figures in elite journals.

Evidently, the likely increase of terror and proliferation of WMD is of limited concern to planners in Washington, in the context of their real priorities. Without too much difficulty, one can think of reasons why this might be the case, not very attractive ones.

The nature of the threats was dramatically underscored last October, at the summit meeting in Havana on the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, attended by key participants from Russia, the US, and Cuba. Planners knew at the time that they had the fate of the world in their hands, but new information released at the Havana summit was truly startling. We learned that the world was saved from nuclear devastation by one Russian submarine captain, Vasily Arkhipov, who blocked an order to fire nuclear missiles when Russian submarines were attacked by US destroyers near Kennedy’s “quarantine” line. Had Arkhipov agreed, the nuclear launch would have almost certainly set off an interchange that could have “destroyed the Northern hemisphere,” as Eisenhower had warned.

The dreadful revelation is particularly timely because of the circumstances: the roots of the missile crisis lay in international terrorism aimed at “regime change,” two concepts very much in the news today. US terrorist attacks against Cuba began shortly after Castro took power, and were sharply escalated by Kennedy, leading to a very plausible fear of invasion, as Robert McNamara has acknowledged. Kennedy resumed the terrorist war immediately after the crisis was over; terrorist actions against Cuba, based in the US, peaked in the late 1970s continued 20 years later. Putting aside any judgment about the behavior of the participants in the missile crisis, the new discoveries demonstrate with brilliant clarity the terrible and unanticipated risks of attacks on a “much weaker enemy” aimed at “regime change” – risks to survival, it is no exaggeration to say.

As for the fate of the people of Iraq, no one can predict with any confidence: not the CIA, not Donald Rumsfeld, not those who claim to be experts on Iraq, no one. Possibilities range from the frightening prospects for which the aid agencies are preparing, to the delightful tales spun by administration PR specialists and their chorus. One never knows. These are among the many reasons why decent human beings do not contemplate the threat or use of violence, whether in personal life or international affairs, unless reasons have been offered that have overwhelming force. And surely nothing remotely like that has been offered in the present case, which is why opposition to the plans of Washington and London has reached such scale and intensity.

The timing of the Washington-London propaganda campaign was so transparent that it too has been a topic of discussion, and sometimes ridicule, right in the mainstream. The campaign began in September of last year. Before that, Saddam was a terrible guy, but not an imminent threat to the survival of the US. The “mushroom cloud” was announced in early September. Since then, fear that Saddam will attack the US has been running at about 60-70% of the population. “The desperate urgency about moving rapidly against Iraq that Bush expressed in October was not evident from anything he said two months before,” the chief political analyst of United Press International observed, drawing the obvious conclusion: September marked the opening of the political campaign for the mid-term congressional elections. The administration, he continued, was “campaigning to sustain and increase its power on a policy of international adventurism, new radical preemptive military strategies, and a hunger for a politically convenient and perfectly timed confrontation with Iraq.” As long as domestic issues were in the forefront, Bush and his cohorts were losing ground – naturally enough, because they are conducting a serious assault against the general population. “But lo and behold! Though there have been no new terrorist attacks or credible indications of imminent threat, since the beginning of September, national security issues have been in the driver’s seat,” not just al Qaeda but an awesome and threatening military power, Iraq.

The same observations have been made by many others. That’s convenient for people like us: we can just quote the mainstream instead of giving controversial analyses. The Carnegie Endowment Senior Associate I quoted before writes that Bush and Co. are following “the classic modern strategy of an endangered right-wing oligarchy, which is to divert mass discontent into nationalism," inspired by fear of enemies about to destroy us. That strategy is of critical importance if the "radical nationalists" setting policy in Washington hope to advance their announced plan for "unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority," while conducting a major assault against the interests of the large majority of the domestic population.

For the elections, the strategy worked, barely. The Fall 2002 election was won by a small number of votes, but enough to hand Congress to the executive. Analyses of the election found that voters maintained their opposition to the administration on social and economic issues, but suppressed these issues in favor of security concerns, which typically lead to support for the figure in authority – the brave cowboy who must ride to our rescue, just in time.

As history shows, it is all too easy for unscrupulous leaders to terrify the public, with consequences that have not been attractive. That is the natural method to divert attention from the fact that tax cuts for the rich and other devices are undermining prospects for a decent life for a large majority of the population, and for future generations. When the presidential campaign begins, Republican strategists surely do not want people to be asking questions about their pensions, jobs, health care, and other such matters. Rather, they should be praising their heroic leader for rescuing them from imminent destruction by a foe of colossal power, and marching on to confront the next powerful force bent on our destruction. It could be Iran, or conflicts in the Andean countries: there are lots of good choices, as long as the targets are defenseless.

These ideas are second nature to the current political leaders, most of them recycled from the Reagan administration. They are replaying a familiar script: drive the country into deficit so as to be able to undermine social programs, declare a “war on terror” (as they did in 1981) and conjure up one devil after another to frighten the population into obedience. In the `80s it was Libyan hit-men prowling the streets of Washington to assassinate our leader, then the Nicaraguan army only two-days march from Texas, a threat to survival so severe that Reagan had to declare a national emergency. Or an airfield in Grenada that the Russians were going to use to bomb us (if they could find it on a map); Arab terrorists seeking to kill Americans everywhere while Qaddafi plans to “expel America from the world,” so Reagan wailed. Or Hispanic narcotraffickers seeking to destroy the youth; and on, and on.

Meanwhile the political leadership were able to carry out domestic policies that had generally poor economic outcomes but did create wealth for narrow sectors while harming a considerable majority of the population – the script that is being followed once again. And since the public knows it, they have to resort to “the classic modern strategy of an endangered right wing oligarchy” if they hope to carry out the domestic and international programs to which they are committed, perhaps even to institutionalize them so they will be hard to dismantle when they lose control.

Of course, there is much more to it than domestic considerations – which are of no slight importance in themselves. The September 11 terrorist atrocities provided an opportunity and pretext to implement long-standing plans to take control of Iraq's immense oil wealth, a central component of the Persian Gulf resources that the State Department, in 1945, described as "a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history." US intelligence predicts that these will be of even greater significance in the years ahead. The issue has never been access. The same intelligence analyses anticipate that the US will rely on more secure supplies in the Western hemisphere and West Africa. The same was true after World War II. What matters is control over the "material prize," which funnels enormous wealth to the US in many ways, Britain as well, and the "stupendous source of strategic power," which translates into a lever of “unilateral world domination” -- the goal that is now openly proclaimed, and is frightening much of the world, including “old Europe” and the conservative establishment in the US.

I think a realistic look at the world gives a mixed picture. There are many reasons to be encouraged, but there will be a long hard road ahead.

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This article appeared in Wild Greens February issue. Wild Greens is an online resource of green, political and direct action articles.

Also available on Znet, 'A community of people committed to social change', which is an enormous library of online articles.
Noam Chomsky is one of America's most prominent political dissidents. A renowned professor of linguistics at MIT, he has authored over 30 political books dissecting such issues as U.S. interventionism in the developing world, the political economy of human rights and the propaganda role of corporate media.

Znet hosts a Noam Chomsky Archive. A brief biography is available at Noam Chomsky's MIT home page.

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