“The Most Unpopular War in History”

Noam Chomsky interview in two parts.

Published in the Big Issue in the weeks preceding the global anti-war march, February 15th 2003



Bush wants the same thing as Ronald Reagan did back in the 1980s, writer and commentator Noam Chomsky tells CJ Stone. He wants to control the world’s energy, and keep his own people in check in the process…

Big Issue Feb 3-9 2003

Big Issue: Given that there is no credible link between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al Qaeda, why, therefore, do you think we are going to war?

Noam Chomsky: Well, first of all, the war might create a credible link. That was the basic import of the material that was leaked from the CIA to Congress in early October. Other Intelligence agencies are saying the same thing. They pointed out that they have no credible link at present, but if the US does go to war against Iraq, it is likely to inspire further terrorist actions, for one thing because it’s likely to create a new generation bent on revenge, but also simply as a deterrent.

Countries that are targeted for attack have few means of self-defence. One of them is weapons of mass destruction – we see this right now in the case of North Korea – and the other is terrorist actions. They can’t compete with the United States in conventional forces obviously. So yes, there’s no link, but there could be one.

That hasn’t really been proposed as a serious argument for war. The arguments that are given have to do with weapons of mass destruction, ridding the world of a tyrant, and so on and so forth. I don’t think those arguments have any credibility, and they’ve been discussed and refuted on quite narrow grounds right across the spectrum, including very respectable sources, like, say, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and I don’t think those are the reasons for going to war. The reasons are different from the reasons that have been offered by Bush, Blair and others, which, as you say, aren’t very credible.

Big Issue: So what would you say are the reasons then? What is behind their attack upon Iraq?

Noam Chomsky: One of the long standing reasons – it doesn’t account for why it’s being done now – but in the background, as with almost anything in that region of the world, there is the question of energy resources. This is the major energy producing region of the world. It is expected to be for several decades to come. Back in the 1940s it was recognised to be, as the State Department put it, “a stupendous source of strategic power, one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” Britain had largely controlled it – Britain and France – with the United States involved, but as a junior partner. That of course switched with the Second World War. France was expelled, Britain was slowly reduced to the junior partner of the United States. The United States committed itself right away for perfectly obvious reasons to control this stupendous source of strategic power, and a lot of the history of the region circulates around that commitment. Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world as far as is known, and controlling those reserves would place the United States in an even stronger position than it already is to dominate the energy producing system, that is, to have in its hands that stupendous source of strategic power, and to ensure that the material prize, the wealth of the region, will flow into the right pockets.

The issue is not access but control. It’s quite different. For decades after the Second World War, in fact until around 1970, North America was the major oil producer in the world, but that had no effect on the need to control it, for the reasons that the State Department pointed out, and that were repeatedly re-emphasised by President Eisenhower and others.

The same is true now. The intelligence projections are that the US will itself rely on more reliable Atlantic based sources in the Western Hemisphere and Western Africa: nevertheless it plainly wants to be in the dominant position in the energy producing regions themselves, which are also very likely, with the war with Iraq, to end up with the US having major military bases for the first time: secure, stable military bases, right in the heart of the energy producing region. One of the consequences of the Afghanistan war was that the US ended up with military bases both in Afghanistan and in Central Asia, which surrounds the region, and is an energy producing region itself of secondary importance. And to have this power right in the middle of the region would, of course be extremely significant, setting production and price levels, probably breaking up OPEC, which is a kind of an anomaly in the US run world system, and in general, everything that follows from having that source of strategic power under control. That’s a long-standing goal, but it doesn’t account for the timing.

The timing, I think, was influenced by two things. First of all, September 11 provided a pretext, not just for the united States, but for states all over the world, to carry out more aggressive, harsh policies, under the pretext of the War against Terror, and that extends to a wide variety of choices that were made. I mean, the Russians intensified their atrocities in Chechnya, Israel in the Occupied Territories, China in Western China, other cases, all under the pretext of the War on Terror, and with the assumption, which was in fact verified, that the United States would provide support and authorisation. Other countries, like the United States for example, increased methods for controlling and imposing obedience on their own populations. There’s been a general attack on civil liberties throughout much of the world, again under the pretext of the War on Terror. It’s gone pretty far in the United States, though it’s been pretty strongly resisted. And one of the effects of September the 11th was to advance these long-term programmes into something more realistic, that does provide an opportunity for more aggressive actions that wouldn’t have been supported before, under the pretext of the War on Terror. That’s why the Al Qaeda/Iraq connection was brought up, as you mention, although there’s no real substance to it.

The specific timing, as many commentators have pointed out, appears to be related to domestic political concerns. It’s a rather striking fact that although Saddam Hussein is despised all over the world, there’s only one country where he’s feared, namely in the United States. And that’s mostly since September (2002). Since September polls have shown that in the order of 60-70% of the population are literally afraid that Saddam Hussein is going to attack us, maybe destroy us, unless we get rid of him tomorrow. Well, what happened in September? In fact September was when the drumbeat of propaganda began. Prior to September last year, Saddam Hussein was a terrible guy, and so on and so forth, but he wasn’t an imminent threat to survival. That began in September. Condoleeza Rice, the National Security Advisor, made a famous television pronouncement about how the next evidence we’ll find out about him will be a mushroom cloud, presumably over New York. No one else seems to expect it. And then came the endless propaganda about the threat to our existence posed by Saddam Hussein, and the country was driven into a kind of panic over it. It worked very well as a technique in the electoral campaign. There was a mid-term Congressional election in November which was swept, in a certain sense, by the Republicans. I mean the numbers weren’t particularly great, but they did win a lot of Congressional positions and gained a majority. A number of studies done of the election exit polls showed that people had retained their preferences, meaning that on social and economic issues they tended to prefer the Democrats, but they suppressed that in favour of security concerns. “Security” usually means, “follow the President”. That’s a strong way for the executive to gain authority, to claim that there are security threats: people suppress other concerns and huddle under the umbrella of power. And that apparently is what happened, as it was intended to do. And something similar will be needed for the Presidential campaign that’s coming up.

Now there are good reasons for this. First of all, remember that the people now running the government are, to a large extent, just recycled from the Reagan administration. Many of the top positions were simply transferred, and others are disciples if they’re not part of it. And they are replaying a script that they played right throughout the 1980s. The first major domestic programme of the Reagan administration when it came in twenty years ago was to drive the country into a deficit. They did the same thing this time, moving a considerable surplus into a big deficit. The way they did it this time, similar to last time, is by a big tax cut, mainly for the wealthy, and a very rapid increase in Federal Government spending. These are not conservatives. They’re radical statist reactionaries. They want a powerful state. So it’s the biggest upsurge in Federal spending since the Reagan administration twenty years ago.

The next step that follows is, since you have a deficit, you have to have what’s called “fiscal responsibility”. That translates into cutting back on services that benefit the population at large. So, this morning for example (17th January 2003), the lead story in the New York Times is the Bush administration, just by a letter, informed the health maintenance organisations, the corporations that run most of the health system, that they’re permitted to cut back on emergency procedures, surgery and so on, for people on Medicaid: that’s poor people. And the government permits that just by a letter. This is across the board, so… well you don’t want people to think about that, so when elections are coming up, you don’t want people to think about the fact that there’s a major assault going on against the population, as indeed in the eighties. The 1980s were a period of relatively low growth, but there was some. However, for the majority of the population it was stagnation or decline. Wages stagnated or declined, working hours increased, so by the end of the decade the US had the highest workload in the industrial world, and an actual decline in average wages, poorer benefits and so on. And that’s exactly what’s being projected now.

The only way you can sustain a programme like that, which amounts to an assault upon the population, is by keeping people frightened, then they will suppress their concerns over what’s happening to them by the fear of an enemy out to destroy you. And that’s just what went on through the 1980s. So the Nicaraguan army was two days marching time from Texas, about to conquer the hemisphere. Then there was an airbase in Grenada that the Russians were going to use to bomb the United States, there were Libyan hit men in the streets of Washington trying to assassinate our leader, Hispanic narco-traffickers, crime in the streets: one after another panic button was pushed, and it was pretty effective. People voted against their own interests. It’s very clear from the polls. So, for example, in 1984 Reagan won what’s called “a landslide victory”, meaning, he got about a third of the electorate. By US standards, that was a landslide. And when studies were taken of people’s attitudes, it turned out that by a large margin voters hoped that his legislative programmes would not be enacted. They didn’t support the programmes. They were opposed to them, but they nevertheless accepted them under fear. That’s what’s happening now.

This probably accounts for the immediate timing of the war on Iraq, and after that there’s some other pursuit to get people’s attention off of the domestic scene. The last thing you want people to do, if you’re Karl Rove, Bush’s campaign manager, political advisor: the last thing you want is for people to be paying attention to questions like, “what happened to my job?” “Why don’t I have a pension?” “How am I going to take care of my elderly mother?” “How do I get prescription drugs?” “What’s happening to the environment in which my children might survive?” “How come there’s a huge concentration of wealth in the hands of extremely corrupt, unusually corrupt sectors of corporate power, the latest scandal on Wall Street” and so on. You don’t want people to be thinking about that. You want them to be thinking about an enemy who’s about to destroy you, so you’d better blow your other concerns aside and just trust the leader. If that works, that will give the reactionary agenda that has been proposed, it will give it a chance to become institutionalised, so deeply rooted in legal and institutional arrangements that it will be pretty hard to dismantle. That’s pretty clearly the domestic goal, and there’s no means known to achieve something like that other than by frightening the population, and they’re doing it very much the way they did in the 1980s.

It’s working internationally too. I mean: take the security council resolution 1441 that the world did agree to reluctantly. The countries went along with that because they were afraid of the alternative. The Bush administration made it very clear that either you go along with us or we declare the UN irrelevant. We’ll take things over and do it by ourselves. That frightens people. It’s a frightening country. Enormous power, very few restraints, it’s got a record of violence and destruction: of course it frightens people. Well this was going on right through the ‘80s too. So, for example, in 1986, the time of the US bombing of Libya and other war-mongering in the Mediterranean region, that was strongly opposed by Europe. These are areas of considerable concern to Europe. They didn’t like what was happening in the least. There was a summit meeting of the major industrial countries. The Reagan administration circulated a memorandum, which told the Europeans that either you go along with us or else “the crazy Americans” – that’s the phrase they used – “the crazy Americans” will simply take matters into their own hands, and we’ll do as we like and it will be even worse. Well the Europeans went along. They accepted the US position on resort to violence in the Mediterranean. And I think that was replayed in November in the Security Council. This is all second nature to the people in power. This is what they do reflexively, automatically. It worked pretty well in the 80s, there’s no reason they shouldn’t do it now.



In the second part of our interview, US intellectual Noam Chomsky tells CJ Stone why war with Iraq will be met with greater opposition than any previous conflict, and why Tony Blair has to do all of Bush’s difficult PR…

Big Issue Feb 10th-16th

Big Issue: This interview will be going out in the same week that an anti-war march is scheduled in London. The last march drew over four hundred thousand people and even more are expected this time. At the same time polls indicate that while a majority of the British people are against the war, about the same number of people believe that war is inevitable. The second question has to do with protest as a catalyst for change. Can ordinary people in the west influence the course of events, and, if so, how?

Noam Chomsky: Not only in the west. This must be the most unpopular war in history. I can’t think of anything like it. I can’t think of a time where the level of protest has been anything like what it is now. Remember that all of this is taking place before the war has even broken out. I can’t think of a case in European or US history when that’s ever happened. I mean, in the case of Vietnam, for example, it was four or five years after the US had attacked South Vietnam before you get significant protest. By then South Vietnam had been practically destroyed. Now it’s before. And it’s all over the place, including the United States. Very large scale protests. Unprecedented. The polls in the United States, incidentally, are kind of misleading. You have to look at them pretty carefully. Polls indicate very strong support for war. On the other hand, if you ask the question, what is the reason for that support, here a fact that I mentioned before is critical. For a very large percentage of the population that supports the war, the reason is fear. They think he’s going to come and get us, unless we stop him now. Well that’s manufactured fear. It certainly doesn’t withstand fact, and it also doesn’t withstand much discussion. If you extricate that factor which differentiates the United States from the rest of the world, then I think one would find the levels of protest and opposition here is fairly similar.

Well, can that make a difference? Sure it can. It’s already made a difference. The administration is trying to work itself into a position where it will have to go to war, it will have no choices. On the other hand it’s becoming harder and harder, largely because of popular opposition. Even a dictatorship can’t disregard its own population. And the more democratic countries certainly can’t. There are efforts to force countries to override public opinion. The most dramatic case right now is Turkey. As you get closer to the region there’s more and more opposition to the war, which is telling in itself. But in Turkey the opposition is enormous, it’s around 85%, and it’s interesting the way that’s treated here. That regarded as a “problem” for Turkey. Turkey has to find some way to take a position that will support the United States in opposition to the overwhelming majority of the population. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal in January by Morton Abramowitz, the former US ambassador, saying, well, ten years ago, in the good old days, there was a Prime Minister of Turkey who was a real democrat. Therefore he went along with the United States even though the population was against it. But the problem now is the people in office aren’t real democrats. They’re paying attention to popular opinion, and we’ve got to do something to over turn that so they’ll become real democrats too. All of this is said without any irony. That’s the understanding of democracy. Democracy means, you do what we say. And if 85% of the population disagree, that’s your problem. You’ve got to overcome it somehow. But this is not easy to carry off, certainly in the more democratic societies. So sure, protest can make an enormous difference, and it already has. At the very least it has already made the operation a domestically costly one for the administration, which will impose restraints on the next round which they have in mind. But it’s not by any means certain that you can’t stop this war.

Big Issue: Given the support that Tony Blair is currently giving to the Bush administration, could you indicate how the British people in particular… what effect the British people might have on the course of events.

Noam Chomsky: Britain is the ONLY country in the world that’s going along with the United States. Israel is, for its own reasons. Britain does follow loyally when the United States resorts to violence. That’s been traditional. And the US counts on it. They use Britain as a kind of a cover.

Big Issue: The Phrase is “International Community” isn’t it, which means Britain and America.

Noam Chomsky: Yeah: “the International Community is supporting us”. And when a dossier has to come out about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or crimes or whatever, it’s handed over to the British to put it out. That’s good for public relations. Then the US media and others can say, look what the International Community is saying, and so on and so forth. If the British Government is compelled by its own population to withdraw from this stance, this reflexive support for US violence, that would be very difficult for Washington.


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