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Prospects for Peace in the Middle East

Noam Chomsky

(Presented at the First Annual Maryse Mikhail Lecture "No peace without justice; no justice without truth" The University of Toledo, March 4, 2001)

Thank you all. I'm really delighted to be able to have the privilege of opening the Maryse Mikhail lecture series. I wish I could open it on a celebratory note, but that wouldn't be realistic. Perhaps more realistic is to adhere to the famous dictum that we should strive for pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will.

With regard to the topic, before getting into it, let me just make a few preliminary comments. The first is just to plagiarize the cover of the announcement. Peace is preferable to war. But it's not an absolute value. And so we always ask, "what kind of peace?" If Hitler had conquered the world there would be peace but not the kind we would like to see.

Second comment is that there are many dimensions to this particular topic: Prospects for Peace in the Middle East. There are several areas of ongoing serious violence - three in particular, which I'll say something about. One is Israel and Palestine. Second is Iraq - there, it's both sanctions and bombing. Third is Turkey and the Kurds. That's one of the most severe human rights atrocities of the 1990s, continuing in fact. And there are plenty of other issues. There is the question of the place of Iran within the region. And everywhere you look, virtually without exception, there is severe repression, human rights abuses, torture, and other horrors. So the question of peace in the Middle East has many dimensions.

Third and last comment is that the US role is significant throughout these cases and very often decisive-and in fact decisive in the four specific cases that I mentioned. Furthermore, however important a factor it might be, it should be central to our own concerns for perfectly obvious reasons-it's the one factor that we can directly influence. The others we may deplore, but we can't do much about them. That's a truism, or ought to be a truism. But it's important to emphasize it, because it is almost universally rejected. The prevailing doctrine is that we should focus laser-like on the crimes of others and lament them, and we should ignore or deny our own. Or more accurately, we should structure the way we view things so as to dismiss the possibility of looking into the mirror-shape discourse so the question of our own responsibilities can't even arise, or more accurately, can arise only in one connection-namely the connection of how we should react to the crimes of others. So for example by now there's a huge literature-in the last couple of years it's been a torrent-both popular and scholarly about what are called the "dilemmas of humanitarian intervention" when others are guilty of crimes, as they often are. But you'll find scarcely a word on another question, a much more important topic-the dilemmas of withdrawal of participation in major atrocities. In fact, there are no dilemmas, but that's the window that has to be kept tightly shuttered or else some rather unpleasant visions will appear before us that we're not supposed to look at.

Exactly how the evasion of the central themes is accomplished is an interesting and important topic about which there's a lot to say, but reluctantly I'm going to put it aside and keep to the special cases that concern us here, merely leaving it a sort of background warning. I should add that this shameful stance is by no means a novelty - in fact it's kind of a cultural universal. I think you'd have to search very hard for a case in history, or elsewhere in the present, where the same theme is not dominant. It's not an attractive feature of Homo sapiens, but a very real one.

Let's take the cases at hand. Let's begin with Iraq. The only serious question about the sanctions is whether they're simply terrible crimes or whether they are literally genocidal, as charged by those who have the most intimate acquaintance with the situation, in particular the coordinator of the United Nations programs, Denis Halliday, a highly respected UN official who resigned under protest because he was being compelled to carry out what he called "genocidal acts," as did his successor Hans von Sponeck. It's agreed on all sides that the effect of the sanctions has been to strengthen Saddam Hussein and to devastate the population-and yet we must continue-with that recognition. There is no serious disagreement that these are the consequences.

There are justifications offered, and they merit careful attention - they tell us a good deal about ourselves, I think. The simplest line of argument to justify the sanctions was presented by the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. You'll recall, I'm sure, that she was asked on national television a couple years ago about how she felt about the fact that she had killed half a million Iraqi children. She didn't deny the factual allegation. She agreed that it was, as she put it, "a high price," but said, "we think it's worth it". That was the end of the discussion. That's the important fact, and it's very enlightening to see the reaction. The comment is hers; the reaction is ours. Looking at the reaction we learn about ourselves.

A second justification that is given commonly is that it's really Saddam Hussein's fault. The logic is intriguing. So, let's suppose the claim is true: it's Saddam Hussein's fault. The conclusion that's drawn is that therefore we have to assist him in devastating the civilian population and strengthening his own rule. Notice that follows logically if you say it's his fault but that we have to go on helping.

The third argument that's given, which at least has the merit of truth, is that Saddam Hussein is a monster. In fact if you listen to Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, or almost anyone who comments on this, they justify the sanctions repeatedly by saying that this man is such a monster that we just can't let him survive. He's even committed the ultimate atrocity-namely, using weapons of mass destruction against his own people in his horrendous gassing of the Kurds. All of which is true, but there are three missing words. True, he committed the ultimate atrocity-using poison gas and chemical warfare against his own population- WITH OUR SUPPORT. Our support in fact continued, as he remained a favored friend and trading partner and ally- quite independently of these atrocities which evidently didn't matter to us, as evidenced by our reaction; continued and in fact increased. An interesting experiment which you might try is to see if you can find a place anywhere within mainstream discussion where the three missing words are added. I'll leave it as an experiment for the reader. And it's an illuminating one. I can tell you the answer right away - you're not going to find it. And that tells us something about ourselves too, and also about the argument.

The same incidentally is true of his weapons of mass destruction. It's commonly claimed that we can't allow him to survive because of the danger of the weapons of mass destruction that he's probably creating - which is all correct except it was also correct during the time when we were providing him consciously with the means to develop those weapons of mass destruction at a time when he was a far greater threat than he is today. So that raises some questions about that argument.

The fourth argument is that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the countries of the region. And there is no doubt that he is a serious threat to anyone within his reach, exactly as he was when he was committing his worst crimes with US support and participation. But the fact is that his reach now is far less than it was before, and the attitude of the countries in the region towards, for example, the US bombing the other day - that reveals rather clearly what they think of this argument.

Well that as far as I know exhausts the arguments we've been given. But those arguments entail that we must continue to torture the population and strengthen Saddam Hussein by imposing very harsh sanctions. All of that as far as I can see leaves an honest citizen with two tasks-one is to do something about it-remember that it is us, so we can. The second is intellectual-try to understand what the actual motives are, since they can't possibly be the ones that are put forth. Makes no sense.

On the side, I don't want to downplay the threat. There are very serious reasons to be concerned about the threat of Iraq and Saddam Hussein. There were even greater reasons during the period when we were helping build up the threat-but that doesn't change the fact that there are reasons today. And more generally, there are reasons to be concerned about the threat of extreme violence and devastation in the region. And that's not just my opinion; it's underscored for example by General Lee Butler, who was the head of the Strategic Command under Clinton. That's the highest military agency that's concerned with nuclear strategy and use of nuclear weapons.

General Butler said that: "It is dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron of animosities that we call the Middle East, one nation has armed itself, ostensibly, with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, perhaps numbering in the hundreds," and that inspires other nations to do so."

Or to develop other weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent-which has an obvious threat of a very ominous outcome. And there's little doubt that General Butler is correct in that. Actually the threat becomes even more ominous when we add something else - that the superpower patron of that nation demands that it itself be regarded as "irrational and vindictive" and ready to resort to extreme violence if provoked-including the first use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. I'm citing high level planning documents of the Clinton administration, plans that were then implemented by presidential directives. All this is on the public record if anybody wants to learn something about ourselves and why much of the world is terrified of us.

In fact it is understood in the world-and strategic analysts here understand it too, and write about it- that others are naturally impelled to respond with weapons of mass destruction of their own as a deterrent. These are prospects that are recognized by US intelligence and by US strategic analysts-and are pretty obvious. And they also recognize pretty clearly, it's not hidden, that the threat to human survival is enhanced by programs that are now underway. For example, the development of the National Missile Defense which almost every country in the world regards as a First Strike weapon. Quite realistically so. Therefore potential adversariees will presumably respond by developing a deterrent to it of one sort or another. That's taken for granted pretty much by US intelligence and strategic analysts and raises questions about why we insist on pursuing a policy which raises the threat of destroying ourselves as well as others. Another question one might ask.

Going back to the Middle East, it poses perhaps the primary danger in this regard-not the only one, but it certainly ranks high at least.
It is worth mentioning that in 1990 and 91, on the eve of the Gulf War, these questions arose. They were raised by Iraq. Several days before the Gulf War began, Iraq offered - once again; they'd apparently made several such offers- offered to withdraw from Kuwait but in the context of a settlement of regional strategic issues, including the banning of weapons of mass destruction. That position was recognized as "serious" and "negotiable" by State Department Middle East experts. Independently of this, that happened to be the position of about two-thirds of the American public according to the final polls that were taken before the war-a couple of days before.

We do not know whether these Iraqi proposals were indeed serious and negotiable as State Department officials concluded. The reason we don't know is that they were rejected out of hand by the United States. They were suppressed to nearly a hundred percent efficiency by the media. There were a few leaks here and there. And they've been effectively removed from history. So therefore we don't know. However, the issues remain very much alive-very much as General Butler said-and they remain alive even though they had been removed from the agenda of policy, and from public discussion. Again that is a choice that we can make. We're not forced to agree to have them removed.

Well, let me turn to the second issue-Turkey and the Kurds. The Kurds have been miserably oppressed throughout the whole history of the modern Turkish state but things changed in 1984. In 1984, the Turkish government launched a major war in the Southeast against the Kurdish population. And that continued. In fact it's still continuing.

If we look at US military aid to Turkey-which is usually a pretty good index of policy-Turkey was of course a strategic ally so it always had a fairly high level of military aid. But the aid shot up in 1984, at the time that the counterinsurgency war began. This had nothing to do with Cold War, transparently. It was because of the counterinsurgency war. The aid remain high, peaking through the 1990s as the atrocities increased. The peak year was 1997. In fact in the single year 1997, US military aid to Turkey was greater than in the entire period of 1950 to 1983 when there were allegedly Cold War issues. The end result was pretty awesome: tens of thousands of people killed, two to three million refugees, massive ethnic cleansing with some 3500 villages destroyed-about seven times Kosovo under NATO bombing, and there's nobody bombing in this case, except for the Turkish air forces using planes that Clinton sent to them with the certain knowledge that that's how they would be used.

The United States was providing about 80 percent of Turkey's arms-and that means heavy arms. Since you and I are not stopping it-and we're the only ones who can-the Clinton administration was free to send jet planes, tanks, napalm, and so on, which were used to carry out some the worst atrocities of the 1990s. And they continue. Regularly there are further operations carried out both in southeastern Turkey and also across the border in Northern Iraq, attacking Kurds there. There the attacks, with plenty of atrocities, are taking place in what are called "no-fly zones" in which the Kurds are protected by the United States from the temporarily wrong oppressor. The operations in northeast Iraq are similar in character to Israel's operations in Lebanon over the 22 years when it was occupying Southern Lebanon in violation of Security Council resolution but with the authorization of the United States, so therefore it was okay. During that period they killed-nobody really knows because nobody counts victims of the United States and its friends-but it's roughly on the order of 45,000 it would seem over those years judging by Lebanese sources. In any event, non-trivial. And the operations in northern Iraq are kind of similar. That's the no-fly zone.

Without going into further details-how is all this dealt with in the United States? Very simple. Silence. You can check and see-I urge you to do so. Occasionally, it's brought up by disagreeable people. And when it is brought up and can't be ignored, there is a consistent reaction: self-declared advocates of human rights deplore what they call "our failure to protect the Kurds," and so on. Actually we are "failing to protect the Kurds" roughly in the way that the Russians are "failing to protect the people of Chechnya."
Or it's claimed that the US government was unaware of what was happening. So when Clinton was sending a huge flow of arms to Turkey-in fact Turkey became the leading recipient of US military aid in the world (I'll qualify that in a minute) during this period -and his advisers didn't realize that the arms were going to be used. When they were supplying 80 percent of the arms to Turkey-increasing as the war increased-it just never occurred to them that these were really going to be used for the war that was then going on and that coincided very closely with the arms flow. The disagreeable folk who bring the matter up and suggested otherwise are lacking in "nuance," sophisticated commentators observe.

Or sometimes it's argued that the US was unable to find out what was going on-actually, it's kind of a remote area-who knows what's happening in southeastern Turkey? An area that happens to be littered with US air bases, where the US has nuclear-armed planes and that is under extremely tight surveillance. But how could we know what's going on there? And of course nobody can read the human rights reports, which are constantly describing in detail what is going on. Or many other studies. But that's the reaction.
I mentioned that during this period, Turkey became the leading US arms recipient in the world. That's not quite accurate-the leading recipients are in a separate category. They are Israel and Egypt. They are always the leading recipients. But aside from them, Turkey reached first place during the period of the counterinsurgency war. For a while it was displaced by El Salvador, which was then in the process of slaughtering its own population and moved into the first place. But as they succeeded in that, Turkey took over and became first.

That continued until 1999. In 1999, Turkey was replaced by Colombia. Colombia has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, and for the last ten years, when it's had the worst human rights record, it received the bulk of the US military aid and training - about half. That's a correlation the works pretty closely incidentally. Why did Colombia replace Turkey in 1999? Well, we're not supposed to notice that by 1999 Turkey had succeeded in repressing internal resistance and Colombia hadn't yet succeeded-and just by accident that happened to be the year in which the huge flow of arms to Colombia increased and displaced Turkey in first place, aside from the two perennials.

All of this is particularly remarkable because of something that you all know: we been inundated in the last two or three years by a flood of self adulation-unprecedented in history to my knowledge-about how we are so magnificent that for the first time in history we are willing to pursue "principles and values" in defense of human rights and especially in crucial cases, to borrow President Clinton's words, we cannot tolerate violations of human rights so near the borders of NATO, and therefore we have to rise to new heights of magnificence to combat them. Again there are a couple of missing words. Apparently we can't tolerate human rights violations near the borders of NATO, but we can not only tolerate them but in fact encourage and participate in them WITHIN NATO's borders. Try to find those missing words-you won't and it will tell you something again. Well, that's the second case.

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