Friday, June 27, 2008

Chomsky on AlJazeera

I'm out of the country for a week, so in the meantime, enjoy this great interview with Noam Chomksy on AlJazeera's "Inside USA". Chomsky talks about the US election, Barak Obama, the current state of Iraq, and the legacy of the Bush administration.



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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Kosovo and its Implications

I will argue that the concept of “humanitarian intervention” can serve an important purpose for powerful states, one that is more strategic than moral in nature. The commonly formulated question raised by “humanitarian intervention” is that of “sovereignty versus human rights”. In my view, this paradigm of understanding can be used by powerful states to justify their dispensing with the normative and legal constraints of the international system even when taking military actions that are not of a moral character.

Since the 1999 NATO action against Serbia over Kosovo is seen as a definitive moment with regard to the question under discussion, I will examine this issue with particular reference to that conflict. I will do this in three stages. I will begin by critically examining the apparent presumption in the mainstream scholarly literature of the benign intent of the states carrying out this purported “humanitarian intervention”. I will cite contemporaneous examples of enforced population displacement and human rights abuses – in Turkey and East Timor - where the British and American involvement was markedly different to that seen in the case of Kosovo.

I will then examine the Kosovo action itself, firstly arguing that the war did not qualify as a “humanitarian intervention”; and, secondly, proposing some alternative reasons for why the action was undertaken.

Finally, I will turn to the above-mentioned question of “sovereignty versus human rights”, arguing that if humanitarianism was not the prime motive for the Kosovo intervention then, with this key assumption potentially discredited, the war’s implications for the international system as discussed in the scholarly literature will need to be comprehensively rethought. I will propose that the real issue at hand is not of “sovereignty versus human rights” but “sovereignty versus power”, where the concept of “humanitarianism” can be used by certain states to justify dispensing with elements of the legal and normative international system – e.g. sovereignty - that constrain their ability to project power.

The assumption of benign intent

The founding assumptions of debate

In examining the debate over the concept of “humanitarian intervention” we can learn as much by identifying points of consensus as we can by noting the points of contention. On this topic, there is some debate over whether “humanitarian interventions” are likely to meet with success, but less debate over whether the professed humanitarian impulses of the actors themselves are in fact genuine. Betts for example, whilst expressing strong reservations about the prospect that such endeavours will be successful, still characterises them as flowing from “the best of intentions” and “resonating with respect for the law and international co-operation” (Betts:1994:20-22).

These general scholarly assumptions apply to the case of the Kosovo war. Reviewing the literature on Kosovo and humanitarian intervention, David Chandler says that, “Apart from being seen as the first ‘humanitarian war’…the war over Kosovo has been generally recognised as a crucial point in the gradual evolution of a new set of international norms”. On this normative evolution, Chandler quotes Patrick Thornberry, who claims that “We are witnessing a sea-change in the relations between sovereignty and human rights”. Chandler says that “most commentators agree that, overall, this development is a progressive and desirable one”. (Chandler:2002:111).

It appears that for many commentators – whether they are in favour of “humanitarian intervention” or not – debate over the concept rests on the assumption that the relevant states’ professed concern for humanitarian values is genuine. Plainly this assumption is non-trivial. A “humanitarian intervention” that is not humanitarian is simply an intervention, a distinction that materially alters our conception of its character and legitimacy.

It is essential, then, to challenge this assumption of benign intent with possible countervailing evidence to see if it withstands scrutiny. At the outset of the Kosovo action Tony Blair spoke of “a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated” (quoted in Chomsky:2001:1). Was Blair’s government attempting to lead the world into the new era of the kind he described? There is evidence to suggest otherwise.

Countervailing examples- Turkey and the Kurds

The 1990s saw serious atrocities committed against the Kurdish population of Turkey as the government fought Kurdish nationalist guerrilla forces. Between 1994 and 1998 3,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed, at least 1.5 million people were made homeless and/or internally displaced, and many thousands were killed by Turkish security forces. To this day, widespread human rights abuses against the Kurds in Turkey are ongoing. The European Court of Justice accuses Turkey of subjecting the Kurds to house destruction, torture, ‘disappearances’ and extra-judicial executions.

Referring to Tony Blair’s statement that, under the “new internationalism” heralded by NATO action over Kosovo, “the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated”, we might ask why the West has not intervened in this case.

In a sense, the West has intervened, but on the side of Turkey. During the mid-1990s British and American arms exports to Turkey increased sharply, in correlation with the increase in atrocities. British arms sales and training of Turkish security forces continued after the New Labour government came to power in 1997. In the years before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Turkish forces were permitted to conduct operations in the US-UK-enforced ‘no-fly zone’ in northern Iraq. Turkish incursions sometimes lasted months, with villages burnt and atrocities committed (for all facts cited in this sub-section, see Curtis:2003:38-46).

Countervailing examples- Indonesia and East Timor

Also in the late nineties, another example of the brutal repression of an ethnic group, including population displacement and large scale atrocities, was unfolding in East Timor. Again, British and American involvement on the side of the repressor was long-established and remained apparently unaffected by the advent of the “new internationalism”.

Indonesia had invaded East Timor in 1975. In suppressing a popular insurgency and enforcing its rule it proceeded to kill an estimated 200,000 people, nearly one third of the East Timorese population. As in the case of Turkey’s repression of the Kurds during the 1990s, an increase in Western arms exports to Indonesia during the late 1970s correlated with the increase of atrocities carried out in East Timor.

A referendum on East Timorese independence in August 1999 was preceded by renewed abuses carried out by the Indonesian military and its proxies, commencing in November 1998. These were designed to intimidate the population in advance of the vote, and therefore qualify as a straightforward instance of terrorism. An estimated 3-5,000 people were killed (twice the death toll in Kosovo on both sides before the NATO bombing) and eighty-five per cent of the population were driven from their homes.

British and American arms sales to Indonesia continued throughout this period, including joint US-Indonesia military training exercises. Support was finally ended in September 1999 under massive public and international pressure, ten months after the new wave of atrocities had commenced, and also after the referendum that they had been aimed at influencing (though they had notably failed in this regard with the East Timorese voting in favour of independence). When Western support was withdrawn, the atrocities stopped almost instantaneously. Chomsky notes that this demonstrates the decisive nature of that support and strongly indicates that its withdrawal at any point over the previous quarter century could have saved many thousands of lives (for all facts cited in this sub-section, see Chomsky:2001:21-26).

Implications for US-UK humanitarianism

In both of the cases highlighted above the atrocities could have been ended, or at least mitigated, by the cessation of US-UK support for the repressor government. Even if one were to argue that the atrocities would have continued – ignoring the example of East Timor – the humanitarian policy choice would still surely have been to end complicity in “the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups”. Such a cessation of support would have carried relatively little cost, as compared to an armed invasion, but the humanitarian option was not taken.
That the US-UK did not adopt humanitarian policies in the above-mentioned cases does not logically preclude the possibility that they might have chosen such policies in the case of Kosovo. But it does enable us to say three things before proceeding further:

1. that intrinsic US-UK humanitarianism does not appear to exist and certainly cannot be casually assumed;
2. that claimed US-UK humanitarianism in the case of Kosovo should therefore be examined very closely; and
3. that if such an examination reveals the humanitarian credentials of the Kosovo action to be suspect, then this, coupled with the non-humanitarian approach taken in similar contemporaneous cases, must disprove the scholarly consensus that the “war over Kosovo [was] a crucial point in the gradual evolution of a new set of international norms” where henceforth “the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated”.

It is therefore to Kosovo that we now turn.

Kosovo - a humanitarian intervention?

To assess whether or not the war over Kosovo qualifies as a “humanitarian intervention” we may ask three pertinent questions:

1. was it a war of last resort?
2. did it avert a humanitarian crisis? and
3. was it fought in accordance with humanitarian principles?

The account of the war set out by the historian Mark Curtis provides some revealing answers to these questions. Facts cited in this section are from his account of the conflict (Curtis:2003:134-157).

A war of last resort?

Curtis’ account of diplomatic activity in the run-up to the war strongly suggests that NATO avoided a peaceful settlement. It is hard to envisage any country accepting the demands it made of Serbia at the Rambouillet conference in March 1999; for example that NATO forces be given free right of movement throughout the Former Yugoslavia. Curtis quotes a senior US administration official who told the media at the conference, “we intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing and that’s what they are going to get”.

During the war, German and French attempts to impose a peaceful settlement were also rejected. However, the final peace accord after the war dropped many of the most onerous demands put forward by NATO at Rambouillet, suggesting, as Curtis points out, that scope for a peaceful settlement had existed before military action was taken. Since these options were not explored we cannot say whether they would have been successful, but we can say that military action was not a last resort taken after all possible alternatives had been explored and exhausted.

Did war avert a humanitarian crisis?

Curtis cites authoritative sources indicating that, far from averting a humanitarian crisis, the war in fact precipitated one, and furthermore that this was a predicted consequence of military action being taken. For example, the OSCE’s account of the war noted that a “vast increase in lootings, killings, rape, kidnappings and pillage [took place] once the NATO air war began”. That Serbia would instigate full-scale ethnic cleansing in response to a NATO attack was expected by those prosecuting the war. NATO commander Wesley Clark said that “The military authorities fully anticipated the vicious approach that Milosevic would adopt”. The Guardian reported on 28 April 1999 that “MI6 is understood to have warned that bombing would accelerate ethnic cleansing”. In fact, four weeks after the bombing commenced Clark said the operation

“…was not designed as a means of blocking Serb ethnic cleansing. It was not designed as a means of waging war against the Serb forces in Kosovo. Not in any way. There was never any intent to do that. That was not the idea…”.

Was the war fought in accordance with humanitarian principles?

Again, the factual record does not suggest that humanitarian concerns were a priority for the war’s instigators. After the war, with NATO troops on the ground, the Kosovo Liberation Army instigated atrocities and ethnic cleansing against Serbs without serious interference from NATO. Furthermore, the conduct of NATO itself in the course of the war raises questions about its humanitarian credentials. Extensive use was made of cluster bombs during the war; in fact, half of all British bombs dropped during the campaign were of this variety. Cluster bombs are inherently indiscriminate and therefore pose particular dangers to civilians. In addition, direct attacks were carried out on non-military targets such as Serb radio and television.

Human rights groups condemned NATO’s prosecution of the war. Amnesty International said that “NATO forces [had] violated the laws of war leading to cases of unlawful killings of civilians”. Human Rights Watch said: “We are concerned that NATO bombed the civilian infrastructure …because its destruction would squeeze Serb civilians to put pressure on Milosevic to withdraw from Serbia”. This latter interpretation of NATO conduct, if accurate, would amount to a charge of terrorism.

If not humanitarianism, then what?

If military action over Kosovo was(a) not taken as a last resort; (b) taken with the expectation that it would precipitate a humanitarian crisis; and(c) if humanitarian principles were repeatedly violated in the course of it being fought, then the scholarly consensus that this was “the first ‘humanitarian war’” is seriously undermined. It also logically follows that the claimed reasons for fighting the war may not have been the real reasons, and that we should therefore consider this possibility together with any other potential reasons for why military action might have been taken.

Curtis notes that the other reason given by Tony Blair for going to war, aside from humanitarian concerns, was “credibility”. “To walk away now” said Blair on the eve of war, “would …destroy NATO’s credibility” (Curtis:2003:141). What is meant by credibility? Policymakers may describe military “credibility” as simply the establishment in the popular understanding of one’s willingness and capability to defend oneself and one’s allies against aggression. This was no doubt the case that Blair wanted to make. But unless we propose that states in general, and the US and UK in particular, only take military action for defensive reasons, we must recognise that credibility also has an offensive, proactive nature, i.e. the establishment in the popular understanding of one’s willingness and capability to proactively advance one’s own interests via military action, if such action is deemed necessary.

Michael Ledeen – a scholar close to the Bush administration – is reported to have made a statement that, though somewhat stark, effectively describes the essence of this latter meaning of credibility. "Every ten years or so” Ledeen reportedly said, “the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." (Goldberg:2002). The NATO approach to the war set out in Curtis’ account suggests that we must consider the possibility that it was not the former, defensive form of credibility that was in the minds of NATO planners.

Curtis also points out another potential reason for NATO to take military action, namely that “Serbia posed the last real barrier to openly expressed British, EU and US aims in Eastern Europe”, i.e. the implementation of “Washington consensus” economic policies and the extension of NATO up to the borders of Russia. According to John Norris, “it was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war”. During the war Norris had been director of communications for Strobe Talbott, a Deputy US Secretary of State closely involved in the campaign. Talbott says that Norris’ account explains “how events looked and felt at the time to those of us that were involved” (Achcar & Chomsky:2006:253).

At this point it may be useful to ask what the NATO policy might have been if, in early 1999, Serbia had been an integrated part of the Western economic and military system. The support given to Turkey and Indonesia in the cases discussed above suggests a possible answer to that question.

If the war was fought for the reasons given by Norris, then this would be consistent with a demonstration of credibility of the kind described by Ledeen. This essentially Realist interpretation – of states acting in accordance with self-interest largely irrespective of ethical concerns – is also consistent with British and American policies toward their Turkish and Indonesian allies. This interpretive consistency contrasts with the difficult questions and inconsistencies raised by the claimed humanitarian motives, as discussed above.

Implications for the scholarly consensus and the international system

These conclusions have serious implications for the scholarly consensus described by Chandler. Thornberry said that Kosovo signalled “a sea-change in the relations between sovereignty and human rights”: a state’s sovereign impunity for events occurring within its borders could now be overridden by other states seeking to prevent human rights abuses being committed within those borders. But if humanitarianism was not an operative factor in US-UK decision making over Kosovo, then whilst we can say that a normative change may have occurred, we cannot say that it is the one described in the scholarly literature.

We are therefore forced to look at an alternative issue: not “sovereignty versus human rights” but “sovereignty versus power”. This is a very different proposition, which for example gives new meaning to Chandler’s observation that “the NATO powers asserted that the restriction on the use of force and presumption of equal rights of sovereignty [under the “Westphalian” system and the UN Charter] were a barrier to effective international regulation” (Chandler:2002:114).

Having failed to get Security Council approval for military action against Serbia, NATO did not attempt to gain UN General Assembly approval, in the expectation that the vote would be lost (Chandler:2002:112). The “new internationalism” described by Blair would therefore be inaugurated without the consent of the international community. Under the normative revolution that was actually taking place, “effective international regulation” was to be the task of certain states – necessarily the powerful ones.

This international opposition shows that the scholarly consensus on the significance of the Kosovo war as described by Chandler is not the universal consensus. In April 2000, the Group of 77 nations – comprising the governments of eighty per cent of the world’s population – stated that “We reject the so called right of ‘humanitarian intervention’”, viewing the new normative order as imperialism in a different guise (quoted in Chomsky:2001:4). The facts reviewed here indicate that this view has merit. We may indeed argue that, in this respect, the widely acknowledged unilateralist tendencies of the current White House administration have a parallel with the policies of its predecessor and its allies. Both administrations – perhaps attempting to take advantage of US global pre-eminence in the post Cold War era – challenged the “barrier to effective international regulation” presented by the international system. Under President Clinton, this was justified on the basis of “humanitarian intervention”, whereas under President Bush the justification is the “war on terror”.


My argument here has not been against humanitarian intervention. In fact I have lamented a lack of humanitarianism in US-UK foreign policy. Noam Chomsky has said of humanitarian intervention that “the proclaimed principle has merit, or would, if it were upheld in a way that honest people could take seriously”. I have shown here that an honest appraisal of US-UK foreign policy in general, the Kosovo war in particular and the implications of such actions for the international system are not encouraging for those concerned with humanitarianism in world affairs. If genuine “humanitarian interventions” are to be possible – as we must hope they are - then a critical appraisal of the credentials of the states proposing such interventions will be essential. This is particularly true when such actions have seminal implications for the international system. Otherwise we risk the concept of “humanitarianism” being put in service of far less enlightened ends than those for which we might hope.


Achcar. G., and Chomsky. N., (2006), “Perilous Power”, (London:Hamish Hamilton)

Betts. R.K., (1994), “The Delusion of Impartial Intervention”, Foreign Affairs 73(6): 20-33

Curtis. M., (2003), “Web of Deceit”, (London:Vintage)

Chomsky. N., (2001), “A New Generation Draws the Line”, (London:Verso)

Chandler. D., (2002), “Kosovo and the Remaking of International Relations”, Global Review of Ethnopolitics, 1(4):110-118

Goldberg. J., (23 April 2002), “Baghdad Delenda Est, Part Two”, National Review Online. Viewed online 7 March 2007

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Audacity of Barack Obama

The mood around the 2008 US Presidential campaign of Barack Obama, though it only begins officially today, has already reached hysteric levels. Just some quick thoughts on this.

At this early stage it seems prudent to point out the inherent irrationality of basing our assessment of a politician’s merits on some vague, warm rhetoric. The relaxed, affable, sax-playing Bill Clinton presided over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the larger proportion infants, during his term in office, as Western sanctions strangled Iraq’s civilian population (thus strengthening Saddam). When challenged on the fact that half a million dead Iraqi infants was more than had been killed at Hiroshima, Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said that the price was “
worth it”. This may not sit well with our image of Clinton the man, but it happened nevertheless.

One could make similar points about Tony Blair, and the lesson, with both Obama and our own David Cameron, is to ignore the froth and look closely at what’s actually happening. Obama and Cameron are apparently afraid of us doing just that, which is why almost nothing of substance in terms of policy proposals is being offered by either of them as yet. However, if you look closely, you can glean an insight into the political character of each. In the case of Obama, this little quote from an NBC interview discussing Iraq, caught my eye:

We’re not going to baby sit a civil war

This statement would sound entirely natural coming from any conservative Republican, both in its callousness and in its casually racist contempt for the Iraqi “babies” that the American adult is being forced - by its own benign if misguided nature - to nursemaid. Indeed, it could have been uttered by just about any imperial policymaker airily dismissing trouble with the natives on the periphery since the dawn of human civilisation.

Indeed, those who see Obama as offering a complete break with the dark days of the hoary old Bush administration should consider who shares his propensity for infantilising the imperial subjects. Here’s another great liberal hope,
Donald Rumsfeld:

Getting Iraq straightened out… was like teaching a kid to ride a bike: ‘They're learning, and you're running down the street holding on to the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you're just barely touching it. You can't know when you're running down the street how many steps you're going to have to take. We can't know that, but we're off to a good start.

And apparently, Rumsfeld’s old boss, who once marketed himself as a unifying, compassionate conservative, likes the analogy as well. This from May 2004:

President Bush sought to rally Republican lawmakers around his Iraq plan Thursday, saying Iraqis are ready to "take the training wheels off" by assuming some political power. "He talked about 'time to take the training wheels off,'" said Rep. Deborah Pryce. "The Iraqi people have been in training, and now it's time for them to take the bike and go forward."

The notion that the Iraqis are infantile,
defective material unable or unwilling to make use of western munificence scarcely merits discussion, but for the record: the destruction of Iraqi society has come in no small part through our own actions. It was our sanctions and bombing of infrastructure that sent Iraq back into the third world, and the unprovoked invasion of 2003, the disastrous economic and political administration of the coalition, and the resulting chaos that turned it into a basket case.

All societies have sectarian and/or ethnic divisions, but they only come to blows when the social fabric unravels and the state itself fails. Plainly those individuals committing the sectarian killing in Iraq are responsible for their actions. But responsibility for the calamitous state of the country also falls on those states and statespersons whose backing of Saddam, sanctions, wars and general crimes and failures led to the destruction of the society and set the scene for the current bloodbath. Few societies could have suffered what Iraq has suffered at our hands in the past few decades without descending into bloody chaos.

To crown these achievements by elevating to the US Presidency a man who sees the destruction we have wrought as evidence of Iraqi infantilism, and to all but canonise the man as a liberal secular-saint, would be to dampen one of the few hopes that has arisen from the years since 9/11: namely that more people might have woken up to the real nature of western power. The emerging “Obamania” appears to teach us that many people have, sadly, learnt nothing at all from the events of recent years.
Update - 6 March 2007:
"How Barack Obama learned to love Israel" - Ali Abunimah

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