Chomsky on the catastrophic consequences of a war with Iran
Chomsky: Preventing War with Iran
By Noam Chomsky, Tomdispatch.com
Posted on April 6, 2007, Printed on April 8, 2007
Unsurprisingly, George W. Bush's announcement of a
"surge" in Iraq
came despite the firm opposition to any such move of Americans and the even
stronger opposition of the (thoroughly irrelevant) Iraqis. It was accompanied
by ominous official leaks and statements -- from Washington
and Baghdad -- about how Iranian intervention in Iraq was aimed at disrupting
our mission to gain victory, an aim which is (by definition) noble.
What then followed was a solemn debate about whether serial
numbers on advanced roadside bombs (IEDs) were
really traceable to Iran;
and, if so, to that country's Revolutionary Guards or to some even higher
This "debate" is a typical illustration of a
primary principle of sophisticated propaganda. In crude and brutal societies,
the Party Line is publicly proclaimed and must be obeyed -- or else. What you
actually believe is your own business and of far less concern. In societies
where the state has lost the capacity to control by force, the Party Line is
simply presupposed; then, vigorous debate is encouraged within the limits
imposed by unstated doctrinal orthodoxy. The cruder of the two systems leads,
naturally enough, to disbelief; the sophisticated variant gives an impression
of openness and freedom, and so far more effectively serves to instill the
Party Line. It becomes beyond question, beyond thought itself, like the air we
The debate over Iranian interference in Iraq proceeds without ridicule on the assumption
that the United States
owns the world. We did not, for example, engage in a similar debate in the
1980s about whether the U.S.
was interfering in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, and I doubt that Pravda,
probably recognizing the absurdity of the situation, sank to outrage about that
fact (which American officials and our media, in any case, made no effort to
conceal). Perhaps the official Nazi press also featured solemn debates about
whether the Allies were interfering in sovereign Vichy
though if so, sane people would then have collapsed in ridicule.
In this case, however, even ridicule -- notably absent --
would not suffice, because the charges against Iran
are part of a drumbeat of pronouncements meant to mobilize support for
escalation in Iraq and for an attack on Iran,
the "source of the problem." The world is aghast at the possibility.
Even in neighboring Sunni states, no friends of Iran,
majorities, when asked, favor a nuclear-armed Iran over any military action
against that country. From what limited information we have, it appears that
significant parts of the U.S. military and intelligence communities are opposed
to such an attack, along with almost the entire world, even more so than when
the Bush administration and Tony Blair's Britain invaded Iraq, defying enormous
popular opposition worldwide.
The results of an attack on Iran could be horrendous. After
all, according to a recent
study of "the Iraq
effect" by terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, using
government and Rand Corporation data, the Iraq invasion has already led to a
seven-fold increase in terror. The "Iran effect" would probably be
far more severe and long-lasting. British military historian Corelli Barnett
speaks for many when he warns that "an attack on Iran would
effectively launch World War III."
What are the plans of the increasingly desperate clique
that narrowly holds political power in the U.S.? We cannot know. Such state
planning is, of course, kept secret in the interests of "security."
Review of the declassified record reveals that there is considerable merit in
that claim -- though only if we understand "security" to mean the
security of the Bush administration against their domestic enemy, the
population in whose name they act.
Even if the White House clique is not planning war, naval
deployments, support for secessionist movements and acts of
terror within Iran,
and other provocations could easily lead to an accidental war. Congressional
resolutions would not provide much of a barrier. They invariably permit
"national security" exemptions, opening holes wide enough for the several
aircraft-carrier battle groups soon to be in the Persian Gulf to pass
through -- as long as an unscrupulous leadership issues proclamations of doom
(as Condoleezza Rice did with those "mushroom
clouds" over American cities back in 2002). And the concocting of the
sorts of incidents that "justify" such attacks is a familiar
practice. Even the worst monsters feel the need for such justification and
adopt the device: Hitler's defense of innocent Germany from the "wild
terror" of the Poles in 1939, after they had rejected his wise and
generous proposals for peace, is but one example.
The most effective barrier to a White House decision to launch
a war is the kind of organized popular opposition that frightened the
political-military leadership enough in 1968 that they were reluctant to send
more troops to Vietnam -- fearing, we learned from the Pentagon Papers,
that they might need them for civil-disorder control.
government merits harsh condemnation, including for its recent actions that
have inflamed the crisis. It is, however, useful to ask how we would act if Iran had invaded and occupied Canada and Mexico
and was arresting U.S.
government representatives there on the grounds that they were resisting the
Iranian occupation (called "liberation," of course). Imagine as well
that Iran was deploying
massive naval forces in the Caribbean and issuing credible threats to launch a wave
of attacks against a vast range of sites -- nuclear and otherwise -- in the United States, if the U.S. government did not immediately
terminate all its nuclear energy programs (and, naturally, dismantle all its
nuclear weapons). Suppose that all of this happened after Iran had overthrown
the government of the U.S. and installed a vicious tyrant (as the US did to
Iran in 1953), then
later supported a Russian invasion of the U.S. that killed millions of people
(just as the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980, killing
hundreds of thousands of Iranians, a figure comparable to millions of
Americans). Would we watch quietly?
It is easy to understand an observation by one of Israel's
leading military historians, Martin van Creveld.
After the U.S. invaded Iraq, knowing
it to be defenseless, he noted,
"Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be
Surely no sane person wants Iran (or any nation) to develop
nuclear weapons. A reasonable resolution of the present crisis would permit Iran to develop
nuclear energy, in accord with its rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty,
but not nuclear weapons. Is that outcome feasible? It would be, given one
condition: that the U.S. and
were functioning democratic societies in which public opinion had a significant
impact on public policy.
As it happens, this solution has overwhelming support among
Iranians and Americans, who generally are in agreement on nuclear issues. The
Iranian-American consensus includes the complete elimination of nuclear weapons
everywhere (82% of Americans); if that cannot yet be achieved because of elite
opposition, then at least a "nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East
that would include both Islamic countries and Israel" (71% of Americans).
Seventy-five percent of Americans prefer building better relations with Iran to threats
of force. In brief, if public
opinion were to have a significant influence on state policy in the U.S. and Iran, resolution of the crisis
might be at hand, along with much more far-reaching solutions to the global
Promoting democracy -- at home
These facts suggest a possible way to prevent the current
crisis from exploding, perhaps even into some version of World War III. That
awesome threat might be averted by pursuing a familiar proposal: democracy
promotion -- this time at home, where it is badly needed. Democracy promotion
at home is certainly feasible and, although we cannot carry out such a project
directly in Iran,
we could act to improve the prospects of the courageous reformers and
oppositionists who are seeking to achieve just that. Among such figures who
are, or should be, well-known, would be Saeed
Hajjarian, Nobel laureate Shirin
Ebadi, and Akbar Ganji,
as well as those who, as usual, remain nameless, among them labor activists
about whom we hear very little; those who publish the Iranian Workers
Bulletin may be a case in point.
We can best improve the prospects for democracy promotion
by sharply reversing state policy here so that it reflects popular opinion.
That would entail ceasing to make the regular threats that are a gift to
Iranian hardliners. These are bitterly condemned by Iranians truly concerned
with democracy promotion (unlike those "supporters" who flaunt
democracy slogans in the West and are lauded as grand "idealists"
despite their clear record of visceral hatred for democracy).
Democracy promotion in the United States could have far
broader consequences. In Iraq,
for instance, a firm timetable for withdrawal would be initiated at once, or
very soon, in accord with the will of the overwhelming majority of Iraqis and a
significant majority of Americans. Federal budget priorities would be virtually
reversed. Where spending is rising, as in military supplemental bills to
conduct the wars in Iraq and
it would sharply decline. Where spending is steady or declining (health,
education, job training, the promotion of energy conservation and renewable
energy sources, veterans benefits, funding for the UN and UN peacekeeping
operations, and so on), it would sharply increase. Bush's tax cuts for people
with incomes over $200,000 a year would be immediately rescinded.
would have adopted a national health-care system long ago, rejecting the
privatized system that sports twice the per-capita costs found in similar
societies and some of the worst outcomes in the industrial world. It would have
rejected what is widely regarded by those who pay attention as a "fiscal
train wreck" in-the-making. The U.S. would have ratified the Kyoto
Protocol to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and undertaken still stronger
measures to protect the environment. It would allow the UN to take the lead in
international crises, including in Iraq. After all, according to
opinion polls, since shortly after the 2003 invasion, a large majority of
Americans have wanted the UN to take charge of political transformation,
economic reconstruction, and civil order in that land.
If public opinion mattered, the U.S. would accept UN Charter
restrictions on the use of force, contrary to a bipartisan consensus that this
country, alone, has the right to resort to violence in response to potential
threats, real or imagined, including threats to our access to markets and
resources. The U.S.
(along with others) would abandon the Security Council veto and accept majority
opinion even when in opposition to it. The UN would be allowed to regulate arms
sales; while the U.S. would cut back on such sales and urge other countries to
do so, which would be a major contribution to reducing large-scale violence in
the world. Terror would be dealt with through diplomatic and economic measures,
not force, in accord with the judgment of most specialists on the topic but
again in diametric opposition to present-day policy.
Furthermore, if public opinion influenced policy, the U.S.
would have diplomatic relations with Cuba, benefiting the people of both
countries (and, incidentally, U.S. agribusiness, energy corporations, and
others), instead of standing virtually alone in the world in imposing an
embargo (joined only by Israel, the Republic of Palau, and the Marshall
Islands). Washington would join the broad international consensus on a
two-state settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which (with Israel) it
has blocked for 30 years -- with scattered and temporary exceptions -- and
which it still blocks in word, and more importantly in deed, despite fraudulent
claims of its commitment to diplomacy. The U.S.
would also equalize aid to Israel
cutting off aid to either party that rejected the international consensus.
Evidence on these matters is reviewed in my book Failed
States as well as in The Foreign Policy Disconnect by Benjamin Page
(with Marshall Bouton), which also provides extensive
evidence that public opinion on foreign (and probably domestic) policy issues
tends to be coherent and consistent over long periods. Studies of public
opinion have to be regarded with caution, but they are certainly highly
Democracy promotion at home, while no panacea, would be a
useful step towards helping our own country become a "responsible
stakeholder" in the international order (to adopt the term used for
adversaries), instead of being an object of fear and dislike throughout much of
the world. Apart from being a value in itself, functioning democracy at home
holds real promise for dealing constructively with many current problems,
international and domestic, including those that literally threaten the
survival of our species.
Noam Chomsky is the author of Failed
States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on
Democracy (Metropolitan Books), just published in paperback, among many