20 Years After Iraq War Vote, US Continues to Flout International Law

This week marks the 20th anniversary for the U.S. Congress vote to authorize the war on Iraq. Some estimates put that it killed between 20 and 30 people. 800,000 and 1.3 million people. Exclusive interview with TruthoutNoam Chomsky shares his views on the causes and consequences of this horrible crime against humanity.

Chomsky is a professor emeritus in MIT’s department of linguistics and philosophy. He is also a laureate professor of linguistics and the Agnese Nelms Haury chair in the Program in Environment and Social Justice. One of the world’s most-cited scholars and a public intellectual regarded by millions of people as a national and international treasure, Chomsky has published more than 150 books in linguistics, political and social thought, political economy, media studies, U.S. foreign policy and world affairs. His latest books include The Secrets of Words(with Andrea Moro; MIT Press 2022); The Withdrawal of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility U.S. Power(with Vijay Prashad, The New Press, 2022); The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic, and the Urgent Need for Social Change (with C.J. Polychroniou; Haymarket Books, 2021).

C.J. C.J. Joe Biden was one of the leading Democratic senators who supported the war authorization. What were the causes of the Iraq War?

Noam ChomskyThere are many types and levels of support that can be offered, from tacit to outright. The latter includes those who regard it as a mistake but no more than that — a “strategic blunder,” as in Obama’s retrospective judgment. There were Nazi generals who opposed Hitler’s major decisions as strategic blunders. We don’t regard them as opponents of Nazi aggression. Same applies to Russian generals, who opposed the invasion in Afghanistan as a mistake.

If we can ever reach the level of applying the same standards to ourselves as we do to others, then we’ll see that there has been very little principled opposition to Iraq War in high places such as the government and the political classes. Similar to the Vietnam War and other major crimes.

There was strong opposition from the public. My own experience at MIT was a good example. Students demanded that classes be suspended in order to take part in the massive public protests Before the war was officially launched — something new in the history of imperialism — later meeting in a downtown church to discuss the impending crime and what it portended.

The same thing happened worldwide. Donald Rumsfeld made the famous distinction between Old Europe and New Europe. Old Europe is the traditional democracies. They are old-fashioned fuddy-duddies that we Americans can ignore because they are enmeshed in boring concepts such as international law and sovereign rights.

New Europe in contrast are the good guys: a few former Russian satellites who tow Washington’s line, and one western democracy, Spain, where Prime Minister Aznar went along with Washington, disregarding close to 100 percent of public opinion. He was invited to join Bush & Blair as they announced the invasion.

This distinction reflects our deep concern for democracy.

It will be interesting to see whether Bush and Blair are interviewed at this auspicious time. Bush was interviewed by the BBC on the 20th anniversary his invasion of Afghanistan. This was another act of criminal aggression that was strongly opposed by international opinion. These are issues we have previously discussed. The interview was conducted by the Washington Post — in the Style section, where he was portrayed as a lovable goofy grandpa playing with his grandchildren and showing off his portraits of famous people he had met.

There was an official reason for the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq, the “single question,” as it was called from on high: Will Iraq terminate its nuclear weapons programs?

International inspectors questioned the existence of such programs and requested more time to investigate. But they were dismissed. The U.S. and U.K. were out for blood. A few months later the “single question” was answered, the wrong way. We may recall the amusing skit that Bush performed, looking under the table, “No not there,” maybe in the closet, etc. All laughable laughter, but not in Baghdad.

The wrong answer required a change in course. It was suddenly discovered that the reason for the invasion was not the “single question,” but rather our fervent wish to bring the blessings of democracy to Iraq. One leading Middle East scholar broke ranks and described what took place, Augustus Richard Norton, who wrote that “As fantasies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were unmasked, the Bush administration increasingly stressed the democratic transformation of Iraq, and scholars jumped on the democratization bandwagon.” As did the loyal media and commentariat, as usual.

They did receive some support in Iraq. A Gallup poll found that some Iraqis also leaped on the bandwagon: One percent felt that the goal of the invasion was to bring democracy to Iraq, 5 percent thought the goal was “to assist the Iraqi people.” Most of the rest assumed that the goal was to take control of Iraq’s resources and to reorganize the Middle East in U.S. and Israeli interests — the “conspiracy theory” derided by rational Westerners, who understand that Washington and London would have been just as dedicated to the “liberation of Iraq” if its resources happened to be lettuce and pickles and the center of fossil fuel production was in the South Pacific.

The Bush administration made clear its demands for the Status of Forces Agreement in November 2007. It demanded access for Western energy companies to Iraqi oil and gas resources, and the right to establish U.S. military bases there. The demands were endorsed by Bush in a “signing statement” the following January. The Iraqi parliament refused.

The invasion had many ramifications. The invasion has caused extensive damage to Iraq. The country that was once the most advanced in the Arab world has been left a desolate wreck. The invasion caused ethnic (Shia Sunni), conflict that was unprecedented in the region. This is now tearing the country apart. ISIS emerged almost from the wreckage and nearly overtook the country when the U.S.-trained soldiers fled to the sight of jihadis driving pickup trucks carrying rifles. Iranian-backed militias stopped them short of Baghdad. On and on.

All of this is no problem for the lovable and witty grandpa, or the educated classes in America who now admire him as an American statesman, called upon by the world to discuss international affairs.

The reaction is very similar to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s. asked about his boast to have drawn the Russians into AfghanistanHis support for the U.S. effort in prolonging the war and to stop UN efforts to negotiate Russian withdrawal. It was a wonderful success, Brzezinski explained to the naïve questioners. It achieved the goal of severely harming the U.S.S.R. he (dubiously) claimed, while conceding that it left a few “agitated Muslims,” not to speak of a million cadavers and a ruined country.

Or, like Jimmy Carter: who assured us that we owe “no debt” to the Vietnamese because “the destruction was mutual.”

It is easy to keep going. It is possible to achieve anything from a position in supreme power with the support of an intellectual community.

The 2003 Iraq invasion was as criminal an act as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the Western community’s response was very different to that of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. The U.S. was not subject to sanctions, assets were not frozen or demands for suspension of membership in the UN Security Council. What are your thoughts on this matter?

You don’t need to comment. The U.S. war on Indochina was the most serious crime since World War II. The U.S. could not be censured. It was clear at the UN that the U.S. would only dismantle any institution involved in the abominable crimes if they were even discussed. The West righteously condemns Putin’s annexations and calls for punishment of this reincarnation of Hitler, but scarcely dares to utter a chirp of protest when the U.S. authorizes Israel’s illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights and Greater Jerusalem, and Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara. The list goes on. The reasons are obvious.

Reaction is quick when the operative rules for world order are broken. The World Court condemned Holy State as a clear example [the U.S.] for international terrorism (in legalese, “unlawful use of force”) in 1986, ordered it to terminate the crimes and pay substantial reparations to the victim (Nicaragua). Washington responded by escalating the crime. The press dismissed the judgment as worthless because the court is a “hostile forum” (according to the New York Times(as proven by its judgement against the U.S. The whole matter has been effectively wiped out of history, including the fact that the U.S. is now the only state to have rejected a World Court decision — of course with total impunity.

It’s an old story that “Laws are spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught.” The maxim holds with particular force in the international domain, where the Godfather rules supreme.

By now the contempt for international law — except as a weapon against enemies — is barely concealed. It is reframed as the demand for a “rules-based international order” (where the Godfather sets the rules) to supersede the archaic UN-based international orderThis prohibits U.S. foreign policies.

What would have happened if Congress had refused to go along with the Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq?

One Republican voted for the war resolution (Chafee). The Democrats were split 29-21. If Congress had refused to go along, the Bush administration would have had to find other means to achieve the goals that Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz and other hawks had laid out fairly clearly.

Many such means are available: sabotage, subversion, provoking (or manufacturing) some incident that could be used as a pretext for “retaliation.” Or simply extending the brutal sanctions regime that was devastating the population. We may recall that both of the distinguished international diplomats who administered Clinton’s program (via the UN) resigned in protest, condemning it as “genocidal.” The second, Hans von Sponeck, wrote an extremely illuminating book spelling out the impact in detail, A Different Kind of War. An official ban on what is undoubtedly the most important book about the U.S. sanction weapon’s build-up was unnecessary. Silent compliance sufficed. That might have crushed the population sufficiently as to call for “humanitarian intervention.”

It is important to remember that cynicism can be unlimited if obedience and conformity prevail.