Chomsky: The Current Bombings

Knut Rognes (
Sun, 28 Mar 1999 12:27:20 +0200


jeg videresender noe fra Z-Net.

Knut Rognes

The Current Bombings
By Noam Chomsky
There have been many inquiries concerning NATO (meaning primarily US)
bombing in 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 comment.
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 reported.
In the scholarly disciplines of international affairs and international law
it would be hard to find more respected voices than Hedley Bull or Leon
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." _