Chomsky on the bombings

Judy Olsen (
Thu, 15 Apr 1999 20:18:18 -0700

It's very interesting to see all the different opinions on the current
war. My own opinion is the same as Noam Chomsky's.
For the whole damn pie,

>The Current Bombings: Behind the Rhetoric
> By Noam Chomsky
> There have been many inquiries concerning NATO (meaning primarily US)
>bombing in connection with Kosovo. A great deal has been written about the
>topic, including Znet commentaries. I'd like to make a few general
>observations, keeping to facts that are not seriously contested.
> There are two fundamental issues: (1) What are the accepted and applicable
>"rules of world order"? (2) How do these or other considerations apply in
>the case of Kosovo?
> (1) What are the accepted and applicable "rules of world order"?
> There is a regime of international law and international order, binding on
>all states, based on the UN Charter and subsequent resolutions and World
>Court decisions. In brief, the threat or use of force is banned unless
>explicitly authorized by the Security Council after it has determined that
>peaceful means have failed, or in self-defense against "armed attack" (a
>narrow concept) until the Security Council acts.
> There is, of course, more to say. Thus there is at least a tension, if not
>an outright contradiction, between the rules of world order laid down in
>the UN Charter and the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of
>Human Rights (UD), a second pillar of the world order established under US
>initiative after World War II. The Charter bans force violating state
>sovereignty; the UD guarantees the rights of individuals against oppressive
>states. The issue of "humanitarian intervention" arises from this tension.
>It is the right of "humanitarian intervention" that is claimed by the
>US/NATO in Kosovo, and that is generally supported by editorial opinion and
>news reports (in the latter case, reflexively, even by the very choice of
> The question is addressed in a news report in the NY Times (March 27),
>headlined "Legal Scholars Support Case for Using Force" in Kosovo (March
>27). One example is offered: Allen Gerson, former counsel to the US mission
>to the UN. Two other legal scholars are cited. One, Ted Galen Carpenter,
>"scoffed at the Administration argument" and dismissed the alleged
right of
>intervention. The third is Jack Goldsmith, a specialist on international
>law at Chicago Law school. He says that critics of the NATO bombing
"have a
>pretty good legal argument," but "many people think [an exception for
>humanitarian intervention] does exist as a matter of custom and practice."
>That summarizes the evidence offered to justify the favored conclusion
>stated in the headline.
> Goldsmith's observation is reasonable, at least if we agree that facts are
>relevant to the determination of "custom and practice." We may also
bear in
>mind a truism: the right of humanitarian intervention, if it exists, is
>premised on the "good faith" of those intervening, and that assumption is
>based not on their rhetoric but on their record, in particular their record
>of adherence to the principles of international law, World Court decisions,
>and so on. That is indeed a truism, at least with regard to others.
>Consider, for example, Iranian offers to intervene in Bosnia to prevent
>massacres at a time when the West would not do so. These were dismissed
>with ridicule (in fact, ignored); if there was a reason beyond
>subordination to power, it was because Iranian "good faith" could not be
>assumed. A rational person then asks obvious questions: is the Iranian
>record of intervention and terror worse than that of the US? And other
>questions, for example: How should we assess the "good faith" of the only
>country to have vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on all states
>to obey international law? What about its historical record? Unless such
>questions are prominent on the agenda of discourse, an honest person will
>dismiss it as mere allegiance to doctrine. A useful exercise is to
>determine how much of the literature -- media or other -- survives such
>elementary conditions as these.
> (2) How do these or other considerations apply in the case of Kosovo?
> There has been a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo in the past year,
>overwhelmingly attributable to Yugoslav military forces. The main victims
>have been ethnic Albanian Kosovars, some 90% of the population of this
>Yugoslav territory. The standard estimate is 2000 deaths and hundreds of
>thousands of refugees.
> In such cases, outsiders have three choices:
> (I) try to escalate the catastrophe
> (II) do nothing
> (III) try to mitigate the catastrophe
> The choices are illustrated by other contemporary cases. Let's keep to a
>few of approximately the same scale, and ask where Kosovo fits into the
> (A) Colombia. In Colombia, according to State Department estimates, the
>annual level of political killing by the government and its paramilitary
>associates is about at the level of Kosovo, and refugee flight primarily
>from their atrocities is well over a million. Colombia has been the leading
>Western hemisphere recipient of US arms and training as violence increased
>through the '90s, and that assistance is now increasing, under a "drug war"
>pretext dismissed by almost all serious observers. The Clinton
>administration was particularly enthusiastic in its praise for President
>Gaviria, whose tenure in office was responsible for "appalling levels of
>violence," according to human rights organizations, even surpassing his
>predecessors. Details are readily available.
> In this case, the US reaction is (I): escalate the atrocities.
> (B) Turkey. By very conservative estimate, Turkish repression of Kurds in
>the '90s falls in the category of Kosovo. It peaked in the early '90s; one
>index is the flight of over a million Kurds from the countryside to the
>unofficial Kurdish capital Diyarbakir from 1990 to 1994, as the Turkish
>army was devastating the countryside. 1994 marked two records: it was "the
>year of the worst repression in the Kurdish provinces" of Turkey, Jonathan
>Randal reported from the scene, and the year when Turkey became "the
>biggest single importer of American military hardware and thus the world's
>largest arms purchaser." When human rights groups exposed Turkey's use of
>US jets to bomb villages, the Clinton Administration found ways to evade
>laws requiring suspension of arms deliveries, much as it was doing in
>Indonesia and elsewhere.
> Colombia and Turkey explain their (US-supported) atrocities on grounds
>that they are defending their countries from the threat of terrorist
>guerrillas. As does the government of Yugoslavia.
> Again, the example illustrates (I): try to escalate the atrocities.
> (C) Laos. Every year thousands of people, mostly children and poor
>farmers, are killed in the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos, the scene of the
>heaviest bombing of civilian targets in history it appears, and arguably
>the most cruel: Washington's furious assault on a poor peasant society had
>little to do with its wars in the region. The worst period was from 1968,
>when Washington was compelled to undertake negotiations (under popular and
>business pressure), ending the regular bombardment of North Vietnam.
>Kissinger-Nixon then decided to shift the planes to bombardment of Laos and
> The deaths are from "bombies," tiny anti-personnel weapons, far worse than
>land-mines: they are designed specifically to kill and maim, and have no
>effect on trucks, buildings, etc. The Plain was saturated with hundreds of
>millions of these criminal devices, which have a failure-to-explode
rate of
>20%-30% according to the manufacturer, Honeywell. The numbers suggest
>either remarkably poor quality control or a rational policy of murdering
>civilians by delayed action. These were only a fraction of the technology
>deployed, including advanced missiles to penetrate caves where families
>sought shelter. Current annual casualties from "bombies" are estimated from
>hundreds a year to "an annual nationwide casualty rate of 20,000," more
>than half of them deaths, according to the veteran Asia reporter Barry Wain
>of the Wall Street Journal -- in its Asia edition. A conservative estimate,
>then, is that the crisis this year is approximately comparable to Kosovo,
>though deaths are far more highly concentrated among children -- over half,
>according to analyses reported by the Mennonite Central Committee, which
>has been working there since 1977 to alleviate the continuing atrocities.
> There have been efforts to publicize and deal with the humanitarian
>catastrophe. A British-based Mine Advisory Group (MAG) is trying to remove
>the lethal objects, but the US is "conspicuously missing from the handful
>of Western organisations that have followed MAG," the British press
>reports, though it has finally agreed to train some Laotian civilians. The
>British press also reports, with some anger, the allegation of MAG
>specialists that the US refuses to provide them with "render harmless
>procedures" that would make their work "a lot quicker and a lot safer."
>These remain a state secret, as does the whole affair in the United States.
>The Bangkok press reports a very similar situation in Cambodia,
>particularly the Eastern region where US bombardment from early 1969 was
>most intense.
> In this case, the US reaction is (II): do nothing. And the reaction of the
>media and commentators is to keep silent, following the norms under which
>the war against Laos was designated a "secret war" -- meaning well-known,
>but suppressed, as also in the case of Cambodia from March 1969. The level
>of self-censorship was extraordinary then, as is the current phase. The
>relevance of this shocking example should be obvious without further
> I will skip other examples of (I) and (II), which abound, and also much
>more serious contemporary atrocities, such as the huge slaughter of Iraqi
>civilians by means of a particularly vicious form of biological warfare --
>"a very hard choice," Madeleine Albright commented on national TV in 1996
>when asked for her reaction to the killing of half a million Iraqi children
>in 5 years, but "we think the price is worth it." Current estimates remain
>about 5000 children killed a month, and the price is still "worth it."
>These and other examples might also be kept in mind when we read awed
>rhetoric about how the "moral compass" of the Clinton Administration is at
>last functioning properly, as the Kosovo example illustrates.
> Just what does the example illustrate? The threat of NATO bombing,
>predictably, led to a sharp escalation of atrocities by the Serbian Army
>and paramilitaries, and to the departure of international observers, which
>of course had the same effect. Commanding General Wesley Clark declared
>that it was "entirely predictable" that Serbian terror and violence would
>intensify after the NATO bombing, exactly as happened. The terror for the
>first time reached the capital city of Pristina, and there are credible
>reports of large-scale destruction of villages, assassinations, generation
>of an enormous refugee flow, perhaps an effort to expel a good part of the
>Albanian population -- all an "entirely predictable" consequence of the
>threat and then the use of force, as General Clark rightly observes.
> Kosovo is therefore another illustration of (I): try to escalate the
>violence, with exactly that expectation.
> To find examples illustrating (III) is all too easy, at least if we keep
>to official rhetoric. The major recent academic study of "humanitarian
>intervention," by Sean Murphy, reviews the record after the Kellogg-Briand
>pact of 1928 which outlawed war, and then since the UN Charter, which
>strengthened and articulated these provisions. In the first phase, he
>writes, the most prominent examples of "humanitarian intervention" were
>Japan's attack on Manchuria, Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, and Hitler's
>occupation of parts of Czechoslovakia. All were accompanied by highly
>uplifting humanitarian rhetoric, and factual justifications as well. Japan
>was going to establish an "earthly paradise" as it defended Manchurians
>from "Chinese bandits," with the support of a leading Chinese nationalist,
>a far more credible figure than anyone the US was able to conjure up during
>its attack on South Vietnam. Mussolini was liberating thousands of slaves
>as he carried forth the Western "civilizing mission." Hitler announced
>Germany's intention to end ethnic tensions and violence, and "safeguard the
>national individuality of the German and Czech peoples," in an operation
>"filled with earnest desire to serve the true interests of the peoples
>dwelling in the area," in accordance with their will; the Slovakian
>President asked Hitler to declare Slovakia a protectorate.
> Another useful intellectual exercise is to compare those obscene
>justifications with those offered for interventions, including
>"humanitarian interventions," in the post-UN Charter period.
> In that period, perhaps the most compelling example of (III) is the
>Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, terminating Pol Pot's
>atrocities, which were then peaking. Vietnam pleaded the right of
>self-defense against armed attack, one of the few post-Charter examples
>when the plea is plausible: the Khmer Rouge regime (Democratic Kampuchea,
>DK) was carrying out murderous attacks against Vietnam in border areas. The
>US reaction is instructive. The press condemned the "Prussians" of Asia for
>their outrageous violation of international law. They were harshly punished
>for the crime of having terminated Pol Pot's slaughters, first by a
>(US-backed) Chinese invasion, then by US imposition of extremely harsh
>sanctions. The US recognized the expelled DK as the official government of
>Cambodia, because of its "continuity" with the Pol Pot regime, the State
>Department explained. Not too subtly, the US supported the Khmer Rouge in
>its continuing attacks in Cambodia.
> The example tells us more about the "custom and practice" that underlies
>"the emerging legal norms of humanitarian intervention."
> Despite the desperate efforts of ideologues to prove that circles are
>square, there is no serious doubt that the NATO bombings further undermine
>what remains of the fragile structure of international law. The US made
>that entirely clear in the discussions leading to the NATO decision. Apart
>from the UK (by now, about as much of an independent actor as the Ukraine
>was in the pre-Gorbachev years), NATO countries were skeptical of US
>policy, and were particularly annoyed by Secretary of State Albright's
>"saber-rattling" (Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe, Feb. 22). Today, the more
>closely one approaches the conflicted region, the greater the
opposition to
>Washington's insistence on force, even within NATO (Greece and Italy).
>France had called for a UN Security Council resolution to authorize
>deployment of NATO peacekeepers. The US flatly refused, insisting on "its
>stand that NATO should be able to act independently of the United Nations,"
>State Department officials explained. The US refused to permit the
>"neuralgic word `authorize'" to appear in the final NATO statement,
>unwilling to concede any authority to the UN Charter and international law;
>only the word "endorse" was permitted (Jane Perlez, NYT, Feb. 11).
>Similarly the bombing of Iraq was a brazen expression of contempt for the
>UN, even the specific timing, and was so understood. And of course the same
>is true of the destruction of half the pharmaceutical production of a small
>African country a few months earlier, an event that also does not indicate
>that the "moral compass" is straying from righteousness -- not to speak of
>a record that would be prominently reviewed right now if facts were
>considered relevant to determining "custom and practice."
> It could be argued, rather plausibly, that further demolition of the rules
>of world order is irrelevant, just as it had lost its meaning by the late
>1930s. The contempt of the world's leading power for the framework of world
>order has become so extreme that there is nothing left to discuss. A review
>of the internal documentary record demonstrates that the stance traces back
>to the earliest days, even to the first memorandum of the newly-formed
>National Security Council in 1947. During the Kennedy years, the stance
>began to gain overt expression. The main innovation of the Reagan-Clinton
>years is that defiance of international law and the Charter has become
>entirely open. It has also been backed with interesting explanations, which
>would be on the front pages, and prominent in the school and university
>curriculum, if truth and honesty were considered significant values. The
>highest authorities explained with brutal clarity that the World Court, the
>UN, and other agencies had become irrelevant because they no longer follow
>US orders, as they did in the early postwar years.
> One might then adopt the official position. That would be an honest stand,
>at least if it were accompanied by refusal to play the cynical game of
>self-righteous posturing and wielding of the despised principles of
>international law as a highly selective weapon against shifting enemies.
> While the Reaganites broke new ground, under Clinton the defiance of world
>order has become so extreme as to be of concern even to hawkish policy
>analysts. In the current issue of the leading establishment journal,
>Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington warns that Washington is treading a
>dangerous course. In the eyes of much of the world -- probably most of the
>world, he suggests -- the US is "becoming the rogue superpower," considered
>"the single greatest external threat to their societies." Realist
>"international relations theory," he argues, predicts that coalitions may
>arise to counterbalance the rogue superpower. On pragmatic grounds, then,
>the stance should be reconsidered. Americans who prefer a different image
>of their society might call for a reconsideration on other than pragmatic
> Where does that leave the question of what to do in Kosovo? It leaves it
>unanswered. The US has chosen a course of action which, as it explicitly
>recognizes, escalates atrocities and violence -- "predictably"; a
course of
>action that also strikes yet another blow against the regime of
>international order, which does offer the weak at least some limited
>protection from predatory states. As for the longer term, consequences are
>unpredictable. One plausible observation is that "every bomb that falls on
>Serbia and every ethnic killing in Kosovo suggests that it will
scarcely be
>possible for Serbs and Albanians to live beside each other in some sort of
>peace" (Financial Times, March 27). Some of the longer-term possible
>outcomes are extremely ugly, as has not gone without notice.
> A standard argument is that we had to do something: we could not simply
>stand by as atrocities continue. That is never true. One choice,
always, is
>to follow the Hippocratic principle: "First, do no harm." If you can think
>of no way to adhere to that elementary principle, then do nothing. There
>are always ways that can be considered. Diplomacy and negotiations are
>never at an end.
> The right of "humanitarian intervention" is likely to be more frequently
>invoked in coming years -- maybe with justification, maybe not -- now that
>Cold War pretexts have lost their efficacy. In such an era, it may be
>worthwhile to pay attention to the views of highly respected commentators
>-- not to speak of the World Court, which explicitly ruled on this matter
>in a decision rejected by the United States, its essentials not even
> In the scholarly disciplines of international affairs and international
>law it would be hard to find more respected voices than Hedley Bull or
>Louis Henkin. Bull warned 15 years ago that "Particular states or
groups of
>states that set themselves up as the authoritative judges of the world
>common good, in disregard of the views of others, are in fact a menace to
>international order, and thus to effective action in this field." Henkin,
>in a standard work on world order, writes that the "pressures eroding the
>prohibition on the use of force are deplorable, and the arguments to
>legitimize the use of force in those circumstances are unpersuasive and
>dangerous... Violations of human rights are indeed all too common, and if
>it were permissible to remedy them by external use of force, there
would be
>no law to forbid the use of force by almost any state against almost any
>other. Human rights, I believe, will have to be vindicated, and other
>injustices remedied, by other, peaceful means, not by opening the door to
>aggression and destroying the principle advance in international law, the
>outlawing of war and the prohibition of force."
> Recognized principles of international law and world order, solemn treaty
>obligations, decisions by the World Court, considered pronouncements by the
>most respected commentators -- these do not automatically solve particular
>problems. Each issue has to be considered on its merits. For those who do
>not adopt the standards of Saddam Hussein, there is a heavy burden of proof
>to meet in undertaking the threat or use of force in violation of the
>principles of international order. Perhaps the burden can be met, but that
>has to be shown, not merely proclaimed with passionate rhetoric. The
>consequences of such violations have to be assessed carefully -- in
>particular, what we understand to be "predictable." And for those who are
>minimally serious, the reasons for the actions also have to be assessed --
>again, not simply by adulation of our leaders and their "moral compass."

Kim Tyler
Economics Department Manager
217B Social Sciences 1
UC-Santa Cruz
831-459-4849	831-459-5900 (fax)
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