Iraq: invasion that will live in infamy
Z-Net - August 11, 2003
Noam Chomsky is professor at the Massachusetts Institute of
SEPTEMBER 2002 was marked by three events of considerable importance,
closely related. The United States, the most powerful state in
history, announced a new national security strategy asserting that it
will maintain global hegemony permanently. Any challenge will be
blocked by force, the dimension in which the US reigns supreme. At
the same time, the war drums began to beat to mobilise the population
for an invasion of Iraq. And the campaign opened for the mid-term
congressional elections, which would determine whether the
administration would be able to carry forward its radical
international and domestic agenda.
The new "imperial grand strategy", as it was termed at once by John
Ikenberry writing in the leading establishment journal, presents the
US as "a revisionist state seeking to parlay its moment ary
advantages into a world order in which it runs the show", a unipolar
world in which "no state or coalition could ever challenge it as
global leader, protector, and enforcer" (1). These policies are
fraught with danger even for the US itself, Ikenberry warned, joining
many others in the foreign policy elite.
What is to be protected is US power and the interests it represents,
not the world, which vigorously opposed the concept. Within a few
months studies revealed that fear of the US had reached remarkable
heights, along with distrust of the political leadership. An
international Gallup poll in December, which was barely noticed in
the US, found almost no support for Washington's announced plans for
a war in Iraq carried out unilaterally by America and its allies - in
effect, the US-United Kingdom coalition.
Washington told the United Nations that it could be relevant by
endorsing US plans, or it could be a debating society. The US had
the "sovereign right to take military action", the administration's
moderate Colin Powell told the World Economic Forum, which also
vigorously opposed the war plans: "When we feel strongly about
something we will lead, even if no one is following us" (2).
President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair
underscored their contempt for international law and institutions at
their Azores summit meeting on the eve of the invasion. They issued
an ultimatum, not to Iraq, but to the Security Council: capitulate,
or we will invade without your meaningless seal of approval. And we
will do so whether or not Saddam Hussein and his family leave the
country (3). The crucial principle is that the US must effectively
President Bush declared that the US "has the sovereign authority to
use force in assuring its own national security", threatened by Iraq
with or without Saddam, according to the Bush doctrine. The US will
be happy to establish an Arab facade, to borrow the term of the
British during their days in the sun, while US power is firmly
implanted at the heart of the world's major energy-producing region.
Formal democracy will be fine, but only if it is of a submissive kind
accepted in the US's backyard, at least if history and current
practice are any guide.
The grand strategy authorises the US to carry out preventive war:
preventive, not pre-emptive. Whatever the justifications for pre-
emptive war might be, they do not hold for preventive war,
particularly as that concept is interpreted by its current
enthusiasts: the use of military force to eliminate an invented or
imagined threat, so that even the term "preventive" is too
charitable. Preventive war is, very simply, the supreme crime that
was condemned at Nuremberg.
That was understood by those with some concern for their country. As
the US invaded Iraq, the historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote that
Bush's grand strategy was "alarmingly similar to the policy that
imperial Japan employed at the time of Pearl Harbor, on a date which,
as an earlier American president [Franklin D Roosevelt] said it
would, lives in infamy". It was no surprise, added Schlesinger,
that "the global wave of sympathy that engulfed the US after 9/11 has
given way to a global wave of hatred of American arrogance and
militarism" and the belief that Bush was "a greater threat to peace
than Saddam Hussein" (4).
For the political leadership, mostly recycled from the more
reactionary sectors of the Reagan-Bush Senior administrations, the
global wave of hatred is not a particular problem. They want to be
feared, not loved. It is natural for the Secretary of Defence, Donald
Rumsfeld, to quote the words of Chicago gangster Al Capone: "You will
get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone."
They understand just as well as their establishment critics that
their actions increase the risk of proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction (WMD) and terror. But that too is not a major problem.
Far higher in the scale of their priorities are the goals of
establishing global hegemony and implementing their domestic agenda,
which is to dismantle the progressive achievements that have been won
by popular struggle over the past century, and to institutionalise
their radical changes so that recovering the achievements will be no
It is not enough for a hegemonic power to declare an official policy.
It must establish it as a new norm of international law by exemplary
action. Distinguished commentators may then explain that the law is a
flexible living instrument, so that the new norm is now available as
a guide to action. It is understood that only those with the guns can
establish norms and modify international law.
The selected target must meet several conditions. It must be
defenceless, important enough to be worth the trouble, an imminent
threat to our survival and an ultimate evil. Iraq qualified on all
counts. The first two conditions are obvious. For the third, it
suffices to repeat the orations of Bush, Blair, and their colleagues:
the dictator "is assembling the world's most dangerous weapons [in
order to] dominate, intimidate or attack"; and he "has already used
them on whole villages leaving thousands of his own citizens dead,
blind or transfigured. If this is not evil then evil has no meaning."
Bush's eloquent denunciation surely rings true. And those who
contributed to enhancing evil should certainly not enjoy impunity:
among them, the speaker of these lofty words and his current
associates, and all those who joined them in the years when they were
supporting that man of ultimate evil, Saddam Hussein, long after he
had committed these terrible crimes, and after the first war with
Iraq. Supported him because of our duty to help US exporters, the
Bush Senior administration explained.
It is impressive to see how easy it is for political leaders, while
recounting Saddam the monster's worst crimes, to suppress the crucial
words "with our help, because we don't care about such matters".
Support shifted to denunciation as soon as their friend Saddam
committed his first authentic crime, which was disobeying (or perhaps
misunderstanding) orders, by invading Kuwait. Punishment was severe -
for his subjects. The tyrant escaped unscathed, and was further
strengthened by the sanctions regime then imposed by his former
Also easy to suppress are the reasons why the US returned to support
Saddam immediately after the Gulf war, as he crushed rebellions that
might have overthrown him. The chief diplomatic correspondent of the
New York Times, Thomas Friedman, explained that the best of all
worlds for the US would be "an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam
Hussein", but since that goal seemed unattainable, we would have to
be satisfied with second best (5). The rebels failed because the US
and its allies held the "strikingly unanimous view [that] whatever
the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the West and the region a
better hope for his country's stability than did those who have
suffered his repression" (6).
All of this was suppressed in the commentary on the mass graves of
the victims of the US- authorised paroxysm of terror of Saddam
Hussein, which commentary was offered as a justification for the war
on "moral grounds". It was all known in 1991, but ignored for reasons
A reluctant US population had to be whipped to a proper mood of war
fever. From September grim warnings were issued about the dire threat
that Saddam posed to the US and his links to al-Qaida, with broad
hints that he had been involved in the 9/11 attacks. Many of the
charges that had been "dangled in front of [the media] failed the
laugh test," commented the editor of the Bulletin of Atomic
Scientists, "but the more ridiculous [they were,] the more the media
strove to make whole-hearted swallowing of them a test of patriotism"
(7). The propaganda assault had its effects. Within weeks, a majority
of Americans came to regard Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat to
the US. Soon almost half believed that Iraq was behind the 9/11
terror. Support for the war correlated with these beliefs. The
propaganda campaign was just enough to give the administration a bare
majority in the mid-term elections, as voters put aside their
immediate concerns and huddled under the umbrella of power in fear of
a demonic enemy.
The brilliant success of public diplomacy was revealed when Bush, in
the words of one commentator, "provided a powerful Reaganesque finale
to a six-week war on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln
on 1 May". This reference is presumably to President Ronald Reagan's
proud declaration that America was "standing tall" after conquering
Grenada, the nutmeg cap ital of the world, in 1983, preventing the
Russians from using it to bomb the US. Bush, as Reagan's mimic, was
free to declare - without concern for sceptical comment at home -
that he had won a "victory in a war on terror [by having] removed an
ally of al-Qaida" (8). It has been immaterial that no credible
evidence was provided for the alleged link between Saddam Hussein and
his bitter enemy Osama bin Laden and that the charge was dismissed by
competent observers. Also immaterial was the only known connection
between the victory and terror: the invasion appears to have been "a
huge setback in the war on terror" by sharply increasing al-Qaida
recruitment, as US officials concede (9).
The Wall Street Journal recognised that Bush's carefully staged
aircraft carrier extravaganza "marks the beginning of his 2004 re-
election campaign" which the White House hopes "will be built as much
as possible around national-security themes". The electoral campaign
will focus on "the battle of Iraq, not the war", chief Republican
political strategist Karl Rove explained : the war must continue, if
only to control the population at home (10).
Before the 2002 elections Rove had instructed party activists to
stress security issues, diverting attention from unpopular Republican
domestic policies. All of this is second-nature to the re cycled
Reaganites now in office. That is how they held on to political power
during their first tenure in office. They regularly pushed the panic
button to avoid public opposition to the policies that had left
Reagan as the most disliked living president by 1992, by which time
he may have ranked even lower than Richard Nixon.
Despite its narrow successes, the intensive propaganda campaign left
the public unswayed in fundamental respects. Most continue to prefer
UN rather than US leadership in international crises, and by two to
one prefer that the UN, rather than the US, should direct
reconstruction in Iraq (11).
When the occupying coalition army failed to discover WMD, the US
administration's stance shifted from absolute certainty that Iraq
possessed WMD to the position that the accusations were "justified by
the discovery of equipment that potentially could be used to produce
weapons" (12). Senior officials then suggested a refinement in the
concept of preventive war, to entitle the US to attack a country that
has "deadly weapons in mass quantities". The revision "suggests that
the administration will act against a hostile regime that has nothing
more than the intent and ability to develop WMD" (13). Lowering the
criteria for a resort to force is the most significant consequence of
the collapse of the proclaimed argument for the invasion.
Perhaps the most spectacular propaganda achievement was the praising
of Bush's vision to bring democracy to the Middle East in the midst
of an extraordinary display of hatred and contempt for democracy.
This was illustrated by the distinction that was made by Washington
between Old and New Europe, the former being reviled and the latter
hailed for its courage. The criterion was sharp: Old Europe consists
of governments that took the same position over the war on Iraq as
most of their populations; while the heroes of New Europe followed
orders from Crawford, Texas, disregarding, in most cases, an even
larger majority of citizens who were against the war. Political
commentators ranted about disobedient Old Europe and its psychic
maladies, while Congress descended to low comedy.
At the liberal end of the spectrum, the former US ambassador to the
UN, Richard Holbrooke, stressed the "very important point" that the
population of the eight original members of New Europe is larger than
that of Old Europe, which proves that France and Germany
are "isolated". So it does, unless we succumb to the radical-left
heresy that the public might have some role in a democracy. Thomas
Friedman then urged that France be removed from the permanent members
of the Security Council, because it is "in kindergarten, and does not
play well with others". It follows that the population of New Europe
must still be in nursery school, at least judging by the polls (14).
Turkey was a particularly instructive case. Its government resisted
the heavy pressure from the US to prove its democratic credentials by
following US orders and overruling 95% of its population. Turkey did
not cooperate. US commentators were infuriated by this lesson in
democracy, so much so that some even reported Turkey's crimes against
the Kurds in the 1990s, previously a taboo topic because of the
crucial US role in what happened, although that was still carefully
concealed in the lamentations.
The crucial point was expressed by the deputy Secretary of Defence,
Paul Wolfowitz, who condemned the Turkish military because they "did
not play the strong leadership role that we would have expected" -
that is they did not intervene to prevent the Turkish government from
honouring near-unanimous public opinion. Turkey had therefore to step
up and say, "We made a mistake - let's figure out how we can be as
helpful as possible to the Americans" (15). Wolfowitz's stand was
particularly informative because he had been portrayed as the leading
figure in the administration's crusade to democratise the Middle East.
Anger at Old Europe has much deeper roots than just contempt for
democracy. The US has always regarded European unification with some
ambivalence. In his Year of Europe address 30 years ago, Henry
Kissinger advised Europeans to keep to their regional
responsibilities within the "overall framework of order managed by
the US". Europe must not pursue its own independent course, based on
its Franco-German industrial and financial heartland.
The US administration's concerns now extend as well to Northeast
Asia, the world's most dynamic economic region, with ample resources
and advanced industrial economies, a potentially integrated region
that might also flirt with challenging the overall framework of world
order, which is to be maintained permanently, by force if necessary,
Washington has declared.
(1) John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs, Sept.-Oct. 2002.
(2) Wall Street Journal, 27 January 2003.
(3) Michael Gordon, The New York Times, 18 March 2003.
(4) Los Angeles Times, 23 March 2003.
(5) The New York Times, 7 June 1991. Alan Cowell, The New York Times,
11 April 1991.
(6) The New York Times, 4 June 2003.
(7) Linda Rothstein, editor, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, July 2003.
(8) Elisabeth Bumiller, The New York Times, 2 May 2003; transcript, 2
(9) Jason Burke, The Observer, London 18 May 2003.
(10) Jeanne Cummings and Greg Hite, Wall Street Journal, 2 May 2003.
Francis Clines, The New York Times, 10 May 2003.
(11) Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of
Maryland, April 18-22.
(12) Dana Milbank, Washington Post, 1 June 2003
(13) Guy Dinmore and James Harding, Financial Times, 3/4 May 2003.
(14) Lee Michael Katz, National Journal, 8 February 2003; Friedman,
The New York Times, 9 February 2003.
(15) Marc Lacey, The New York Times, 7/8 May 2003
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