Nefarious Aggression

Against the Current, No. 29, November/December 1990

Noam Chomsky

ON AUGUST 2, Iraq invaded Kuwait installing a puppet government, later annexing it outright after international sanctions were imposed. Any Middle East crisis at once assumes ominous international proportions because of the incomparable energy reserves of the region, primarily in the Arabian peninsula, which the State Department described in the 1940s as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history,” and “probably the richest economic prize in the world in the field of foreign investment.”

After the war, U.S. corporations gained the leading role in Middle East oil production, while dominating the Western hemisphere, which remained the major producer until 196& The United States did not then need Middle East oil for itself. Rather, the goal was to dominate the world system, ensuring that Europe and Japan would not strike an independent course. Control over energy is a lever for global dominance; cheap oil is a policy instrument, not an end in itself.

The configuration of forces today is not what it was forty years ago. The period of U.S. global hegemony was visibly drawing to a close by the mid-1970s, as the state capitalist world moved towards a tripolar structure with economic power centered in the United States, Japan and the German-based European Community. With the diffusion of power in U.S. domains, and the retreat of the Soviet Union, the contours of the international system have been substantially modified.

Conventional usage refers to this change as “the end of the Cold War.” We may adopt it, as long as we are careful not to carry along without reflection the ideological baggage designed to shape understanding in the interests of domestic power.

There is a striking element of instability in the “post-Cold War” international system: The economic system is tripolar, but the military order is not.

The United States remains the only power with the will and the capacity to exercise force on a global scale, even more freely than before, some officials and strategic analysts contend, with the fading of the Soviet deterrent But the U.S. no longer enjoys the preponderance of economic power that enabled it to maintain an aggressive and interventionist military posture since World War H. Military power not backed by a comparable economic base may well inspire adventurism, a tendency to lead with one’s strength, possibly with catastrophic consequences.

These features of the international system have been manifest in the varying reactions of the industrial powers to the collapse of the Soviet empire, and in the early post-Cold War U.S. military actions, the invasion of Panama and the response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait In the latter case, the tension between economic tripolarity and military unipolarity is particularly evident Despite the great hazards of military conflict, the virtually instinctive U.S. reaction was to limit the confrontation to the arena of force, avoiding possible diplomatic opportunities and even expressing deep concern that others might seek to “defuse the crisis” by military means, which would achieve the goals sought generally by the international community but without a decisive and more far-reaching victory for U.S. power.

Similarities between Iraqi aggression in Kuwait and U.S. aggression in Panama are hard to miss It is also easy to draw further parallels between the puppet government installed by the Iraqi invaders—which might well have been kept in place to serve their interests had it not been for the firm international response—and the regime of a tiny minority of white businessmen and bankers in Panama, coordinated by a parallel structure of U.S. military and civilian “advisers” at every level. The most significant disparity is that the U.S. invasion of Panama was carried out by our side and is therefore benign, whereas the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait ran counter to critical U.S. interests and was therefore nefarious and in violation of the most august principles of international law and morality.

Framing the Issues

This array of events posed several ideological challenges. The first task is to portray Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as a vicious tyrant and international gangster. That is straightforward enough, since it is plainly true.

The second task is to gaze in awe at the invader of Panama, and manager of what the World Court determined to be “the unlawful use of force” against Nicaragua, denouncing the unlawful use of force against Kuwait and proclaiming his undying devotion to the United Nations charter.

It might seem that this task would prove a shade more difficult than the first. Not so, however. President Bush’s steely-eyed visage graced the front pages along with his inspiring words on the need to resist aggression, highlighted so that all would honor his valor and dedication to the ideals we cherish, not besmirched by any reference to the invasion of Panama a few months earlier. Even his reference to the “vivid memories” of Vietnam as a lesson in the need to resist aggression and uphold the rule of law passed without a clamor—even a whisper—of condemnation, a mark of true discipline.

Deeply buried in the memory hole are such events of ancient history as the invasions of Panama and Grenada, the war against Nicaragua, the attack against South Vietnam and the rest of Indochina, the invasion of the Dominican Republic and the huge campaign of international terrorism against Cuba, and on back through the years; and the U.S. reaction to aggression by its client states.

Across the spectrum, there was acclaim for this renewed demonstration of our historic advocacy of the ways of peace—though a number of old-fashioned right-wingers asked why we should do the dirty work. At the outer limits of dissidence, Mary McGrory wrote that while Hussein “may have a following among have-not Arabs,” Americans “are emotionally involved in getting rid of the beast” by one means or another She suggested bombing Baghdad, though it could be problematic because of possible retaliation against Americans.

The Washington Post leaked a White House plan to eliminate the beast, approved by the president when he was informed by CIA director William Webster “that Hussein represented a threat to the long-term economic interests of the United States.”

Former New York limes correspondent Bernard Trainor, now director of the national security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, described Saddam as “the Noriega of the Middle East Like his Panamanian counterpart, he has to go.” The editors of the Boston Globe praised Bush for standing up for our fundamental values and drawing a line in the sand before the raging beast “The line is clearer than that drawn in Korea, Lebanon and Vietnam,” they observed.

Letters to the editor, in contrast, made frequent reference to the hypocrisy of the pose, asking “what is the difference between our invasion of Panama and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait?” among many other cases of benign aggression. The dramatic difference between letters to the editor and professional commentary again illustrates the failure of the ideological offensive of the past years to reach beyond educated elites to all sectors of the general public.

Overseas, simple truths could be perceived even in the mainstream press. A lead editorial in the Dublin Sunday Times was headlined “Moral Indignation is Pure Hypocrisy,” recalling the (favorable) Western reaction to Iraq’s invasion of Iran, the U.S. invasion of Grenada and Panama, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, and “the injustice done to the Palestinians [which] is continuing cause of justifiable anger in the Middle East” and will lead to “continued turmoil.”

But respectable commentators at home never flinched. The parallels to the Panama invasion were ignored with near unanimity, while the more audacious, recognizing that attack is the best defense, went so far as to compare George Bush’s actions in Panama with his dispatch of troops to Saudi Arabia, not to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait Throughout, we see how important it is to take possession of history and to shape it to the purposes required by the powerful, and how valuable is the contribution of the loyal servants who do their bidding.

With comparable unanimity, responsible commentators failed to recall Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, with the goal of establishing a puppet regime in a “New Order subordinated to Israel’s interests, and bringing to a halt the increasingly irritating PLO initiatives for a peaceful diplomatic settlement Also notably lacking was a comparison to Israel’s occupation of territories conquered in 1967 and annexation of East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights.

Paths (Not Taken) Away From Disaster

There was a brief threat that the Israeli connection might come to the fore when Saddam Hussein proposed a settlement on August 12, offering to withdraw completely from Kuwait if others too would withdraw from occupied lands: Syria from Lebanon, and Israel from the territories it conquered in 1967.

In London, the Financial Times felt that, although his offer does not reduce the imminent dangers, it “may yet serve some useful purpose,” offering “a path away from disaster… through negotiation.” In linking Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to Israeli “withdrawal from Palestinian and Syrian territory, Mr Saddam has said something with which no Arab leader or citizen, no matter how pro-American, can disagree.”

The U.S. reaction was different. In official response and general commentary, there was no thought that the proposal might be explored to find a peaceful resolution for a very serious crisis. There was not even a ritual bow to the possibility that there might be a valid point buried somewhere in the suggestion. Rather, the proposal was dismissed with utter derision.

The danger that the issues might be addressed was quickly extinguished. The media also quietly passed over the fact that two days before, the Israeli Minister of Agriculture had published full-page statements in newspapers saying that:

“It is difficult to conceive of any political solution consistent with Israel’s survival that does not involve complete, continued Israeli control of the water and sewerage systems [of the occupied territories], and of the associated infrastructure, including the power supply and road network, essential to their operation, maintenance and accessibility.”

A grant of meaningful self-determination to the Palestinians would “gravely endanger … Israel’s vital interests,” the statement emphasized. In short, no meaningful withdrawal from the Occupied Territories or recognition of Palestinian national rights is conceivable, the consistent position of U.S.-Israeli rejectionism which for twenty years has posed the primary barrier to any diplomatic resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Another possible problem arose when Saddam Hussein proposed on August 19 that the matter of Kuwait be left an “Arab issue,” to be dealt with by the Arab states alone, in the manner of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and Morocco’s attempt to take over the Western Sahara. The proposal was dismissed at once on the plausible grounds that in this arena, Saddam Hussein could expect to gain his ends by the threat and use of force.

One relevant fact was overlooked: The Iraqi dictator was again stealing a leaf from Washington’s book The traditional U.S. position with regard to the Western hemisphere is that “outsiders” have no right to intrude. If the U.S. intervenes in Latin America or the Caribbean, it is a hemispheric issue, to be resolved here, without external interference. The message is: Strangers Keep Out, we can handle our own affairs—in an arena in which the regional hegemon expects to prevail.

On August 23, a former high-ranking U.S. official delivered another Iraqi offer to National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. The proposal, made public by Knut Royce in Newsday on October 29, offered to withdraw from Kuwait and allow foreigners to leave in return for the lifting of sanctions, guaranteed access to the Gulf, and full control of the Rumailah oil field “that extends slightly into Kuwaiti territory from Iraq” (Royce). There was no demand that the U.S. withdraw from Saudi Arabia, or other preconditions.

The reaction was, again, illuminating. Government spokesmen ridiculed the whole affair The New York Times noted the offer briefly on page 14, the continuation page of an article on another topic, citing government spokespersons who dismissed the Newsday report as “baloney.” After framing the matter properly, the Times report concedes that the story was accurate, quoting White House sources who said the proposal “had not been taken seriously because Mr. Bush demands the unconditional withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait.”

Several features of the Independent Press are illustrated here. Deviations from the propaganda line can occur, more readily as in this case out of the national spotlight. That raises the problem of damage control. A standard journalistic device to suppress unwanted facts that have unfortunately come to light is to report them only in the context of government denials. The unwanted facts are first dismissed as “baloney,” then conceded to be accurate—but irrelevant, because Washington isn’t interested. We can breathe easily, the threat that there might be “a path away from disaster through negotiation” having been averted.

Steady On Course

It was also necessary to deal somehow with the fact that prior to Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait, the Bush administration and its predecessors treated this murderous thug as an amiable friend, encouraging trade with his regime and credits to enable it to purchase U.S. goods. Before that, Washington had supported his invasion of Iran (and perhaps more, we may learn some day) and then “tilted” so far towards Iraq in the Gulf War that military forces were sent to “protect shipping” from attack by Iran—the main threat to shipping having been Iraqi—persisting in this course even after the USS Stark was attacked in 1987 by Iraqi aircraft.

As the nation rallied to destroy the beast, Texas congressman Henry Gonzalez, chairman of the House Banking Committee, charged that one Atlanta-based bank alone extended $3 billion in letters of credit to Iraq, $800 million of it guaranteed by the Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation, which underwrites bank loans to finance exports of U.S. farm products. Gonzalez charged further that there is dear evidence that armaments, possibly including chemical weapons, were obtained by Iraq under the deal.

New initiatives of the Bush administration to bolster Saddam Hussein took place as the invasion of Panama commenced (see my article in Z Magazine, March 1990). Just as Operation Just Cause was launched to defend the world from Manuel Noriega’s iniquity, the White House announced plans to lift a ban on loans to Iraq. These were implemented shortly after, to achieve the “goal of increasing U.S. exports and put us in a better position to deal with Iraq regarding its human rights record” the State Department explained with a straight face. The first goal is a familiar one, invoked at the same time to justify newly announced high tech sales of $300 million to the Tiananmen Square killers.

The bank credits to Iraq had been reported on network television by ABC Middle East correspondent Charles Glass a few days before the Panama invasion. He reported further that “the U.S. has become Iraq’s largest trading partner.” For some time, Glass had been waging a lonely campaign in the mainstream media to expose Iraqi atrocities and the critically important U.S. backing for the regime, eliciting evasion or denials from Washington. The media were generally not interested until several months later, when the Iraqi threat was “discovered” in the context of the search for new enemies to justify the Pentagon budget, and in August with Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait.

On August 13, the New York Times finally acknowledged that Iraq had reached its heights of power “with American acquiescence and sometimes its help,” including “a thriving grain trade with American farmers, cooperation with United States intelligence agencies, oil sales to American refiners that helped finance its military and muted White House criticism of its human rights and war atrocities.” The Reagan and Bush administrations scarcely reacted when Iraq purchased U.S. helicopters and transferred them to military use in violation of promises, used poison gas against Iranian troops and its own Kurdish citizens, and relocated half a million Kurds and Syrians by force, among other atrocities.

Just a mistake in judgment, one of those ironies of history, according to the official story. Nothing is said about why all of this is being reported now, after Washington had turned against Iraq, not before—for example, at the moment of the Panama invasion—when the evidence was readily available and might have helped fend off what has now taken place.

Also worth discussing would be the striking fact that from Mussolini until today, fascist killers and tyrants are quite acceptable allies as long as they line up on the right side on important matters—such as keeping the world safe for profit—but suddenly become beasts who must be exterminated when they reveal a lack of appreciation for the doctrine that “rich men living at peace within their habitations” (Winston Churchill) must be guaranteed their right to rule the world.

Iraqi influence over the world’s cheapest and most abundant source of energy is seen, correctly, as extremely threatening. U.S. influence over the resources of the Arab world, in contrast, is taken to be benign—to be sure, not for the majority of the people living in Kuwait or the region generally, or others like them elsewhere, but rather for the important people. On the same Churchillian assumptions, the rich men who do our bidding in the Arab world are “moderates,” joining the ranks of Mussolini, Suharto, the Guatemalan generals and others like them.

Expounding the consequences of the Iraqi invasion, the New York Times reports that “the Middle East has now split into a clearly moderate pro-Western camp” and “a fiercely nationalistic anti-Western constellation.” If Saddam Hussein were to fulfill “his threat to scorch” Israel, Bernard Trainor adds, “it would generate further support from millions of disenfranchised Arabs who lionize him and who could ignite civil disorder in the conservative and moderate Arab states”—those ruled and managed by princes and Harvard business school graduates.

Note that Trainor follows convention in denouncing Saddam Hussein as a Hitlerian maniac on grounds of his threat to scorch Israel—in retaliation for Israeli aggression, a fact completely overlooked as in this case, or dismissed as irrelevant. Note also that the phrases “moderate pro-Western” and “fiercely nationalistic anti-Western” are redundant. “Pro-Western implies “moderate;” “anti-Western” implies “fiercely nationalistic,” that is, evil and fanatical.

The Victims’-Eye Viewpoint

In refugee camps and villages, Palestinians who have suffered racist humiliation and savage persecution from the first days of the military occupation looked to Saddam Hussein as a liberator. This reaction offered golden opportunities to their oppressors.

The media could feature musings on the travail of the Israeli peace camp and its American supporters, who have struggled with such courage and devotion for Palestinian rights, but must now abandon the cause for which they have sacrificed so much because of Palestinian perfidy. Deeply as they regret this betrayal, and saddened as they are to see that the popular uprising (Intifada) has “lost direction” for mysterious reasons, perhaps rooted in the Arab character, they can no longer dedicate their lives to the unworthy Pa1esfinians.

Not privileged to see the world through U.S. and Israeli eyes Palestinians are restricted to the facts, which are brilliantly cleat The U.S.-Israeli strategy of crushing the Intifada by violence and rigid totalitarian controls, while the paymasters are diverted with fanciful tales about the “peace process,” shows promise of achieving its ends, proving once again that there are limits to what flesh and blood can bear.

Palestinians know perfectly well that both major political groupings in Israel are officially committed to the denial of their national rights, and that the Israeli peace movement that so entrances American observers has yet to abandon its rejectionism even to the level reached fifteen years ago by the PLO.
There are individuals and small grouplets that take an honorable and principled stand in support of the human rights of Palestinians, and a political settlement that recognizes the national rights of Jews and Palestinians. Peace Now has not U.S. reporters spin fables about its labors, and delight in the carefully crafted vision of the “beautiful Israeli” who sighs that peace could come if only there were some Palestinians as beautiful as he.

But the people at the wrong end of the clubs know that there was no support for their non-violent protest for many years, and no response to Palestinian and Arab peace initiatives, that even their minimal human rights, let alone their national rights, aroused little concern until it seemed that Israeli and American interests would be threatened, and that even today, the alleged advocacy of a Palestinian state on the part of Peace Now is for American consumption only—and even there, only for those who choose not to look at the actual words.

Little solid information is available (or, at least, reported) on the Jordanian and PLO positions. According to PLO sources, Jordan and the PLO advocated a plan under which the United Nations would introduce a peace-keeping force and coordinate talks on the future government of Kuwait This and other proposals for a “diplomatic track” were either ignored or quickly dismissed by the White House, and the media.

Safeguarding Our Needs

Given current U.S. concern to ensure that Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons capacity is destroyed, it is worth recalling another rejected Iraqi offer. On April 12,1990, Saddam Hussein repeated his offer to destroy his arsenal of chemical and other non-conventional weapons if Israel agrees to eliminate its chemical and nuclear weapons. Responding to this offer, the State Department said it welcomes Iraq’s willingness to destroy its arsenals but opposes the link to Israeli chemical and nuclear weapons.

On August 25, three days after reporting and justifying U.S. fears that others might be tempted by the “diplomatic track,” the limes editors, outraged that Sad-dam Hussein had surrounded foreign embassies with troops, denounced him for “Iash[ing] out at diplomacy itself.” This extreme defiance of international law impelled them for the first time to demand that he be treated as a war criminal under the Nuremberg principles, which hold that “a crime against world law is liable to punishment,” including heads of states and those who obey their orders.

The editors charged Saddam with such crimes as “initiating a war of aggression in violation of international treaties,” citing the invasion of Iran in 1980; “the ill treatment of civilian population in occupied territories;” stripping people of their citizenship and abusing innocent civilians; and this new outrage against “diplomats whose special status is protected by the Vienna conventions.” The charges are all accurate, and the worst crimes, by far, are from the period when the editors pretended not to see U.S. government support for its Iraqi friends.

The editors did not, however, see fit to recall such matters as the ruling of the International Court of Justice on the U.S. attack against Nicaragua; the Israeli attack on the Soviet embassy in Beirut, and its partial takeover of that embassy in September 198Z the U.S. violations of diplomatic privilege in January 1990 that were regarded by the international community as so severe as to lead to a U.N. Security Council resolution that the United States was compelled to veto; or the U.S. veto two months earlier of a Security Council resolution demanding that Israel cease its abuse of civilians in occupied territories.

By any standards, Saddam Hussein is a monstrous figure, surely in comparison to the minor criminal Manuel Noriega. But his villainy is not the reason for his assumption of the role of Great Satan in August 1990. It was apparent long before, and did not impede Washington’s efforts to lend him aid and support Few words need be wasted on our traditional commitment to resist aggression and uphold the rule of law. Hussein became a demon in the usual fashion: when it was finally understood beyond any doubt that his independent nationalism threatens U.S. interests.

The military occupation of Kuwait—which if successfully maintained would make the Iraqi dictator a major player on the world scene—does not raise the threat of superpower confrontation and nuclear war, as did earlier conflicts in the region. That significant fact reflects, of course, the collapse of the Soviet system, which leaves the United States unchallenged in military force, while declining in its capacity to use it to coerce and control in a world of three major economic centers and a diversity of power elsewhere.

Much more must be said to do justice to the complex and critical affairs of the Middle East and the international nexus in which they have taken shape. In the present context, we merely note again the continuity of policy and concerns as the Cold War system enters a new phase.

November-December 1990, ATC 29

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