James Woolsey and Noam Chomsky debate
how far the U.S. can go in its foreign policy.
March 12, 1998
in this forum:
Does the U.S. have a moral obligation to intervene in international affairs? Is America's willingness to use force against Iraq just a continuation of previous policies? Do you think the U.S. government, including Congress, is overstepping its limits? Do you believe that the U.S. public has an adequate opportunity to form rational opinions about U.S. policy given the quality of media coverage? What does the recent crisis tell us about the direction U.S. foreign policy is headed in the post-Cold War world? David Whitman of Boston, MA, asks: What does the recent crisis, namely the U.S.' insistence that it reserves the "right" to use force against Iraq, tell us about the direction U.S. foreign policy is headed in the post-Cold War world? Doesn't this set a dangerous precedent, if not for U.S. policy, but for the future of the international system?
Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at M.I.T., responds:
My only reservations have to do with the phrases "post-Cold War world" and "precedent." The U.S. has always insisted on its right to use force, whatever international law requires, and whatever international institutions decide: the United Nations, the World Court, the Organization of American States, or others. While the World Court was reaching its (expected) judgment in April 1986, Secretary of State George Shultz declared that "Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table," condemning those who advocate "utopian, legalistic means like outside mediation, the United Nations, and the World Court, while ignoring the power element of the equation." Saddam would surely agree, along with many others in modern history.
Such rejection of the rule of law has often been dramatically explicit. Thus, immediately after the 1954 Geneva Accords on a peaceful settlement for Indochina, which Washington refused to accept, the National Security Council secretly decreed that even in the case of "local Communist subversion or rebellion NOT CONSTITUTING ARMED ATTACK" (my emphasis) the U.S. would consider the use of military force, including an attack on China if it is "determined to be the source" of the "subversion"; the NSC also called for converting Thailand into "the focal point of U.S. covert and psychological operations in Southeast Asia," undertaking "covert operations on a large and effective scale" throughout Indochina, and in general, acting forcefully to undermine the Accords and the U.N. Charter. The wording, repeated verbatim annually in planning documents, was chosen so as to make explicit the U.S. right to violate Article 51 of the Charter, which permits the use of force only in immediate self-defense against "armed attack."
The U.S. proceeded to define "aggression" to include "political warfare, or subversion," what U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson called "internal aggression" while defending JFK's escalation in South Vietnam. U.S. attacks were therefore transmuted into "self-defense" against "internal aggression." When the U.S. bombed Libyan cities in 1986, the official justification was "self defense against future attack," a ludicrous distortion of the Charter applauded by legal specialists in the national press. The U.S. invasion of Panama was defended in the Security Council by appeal to Article 51, which, U.S. Ambassador Pickering declared, "provides for the use of armed force to defend a country, to defend our interests and our people," and permits the U.S. to invade Panama to prevent its "territory from being used as a base for smuggling drugs into the United States" -- an astonishing concept of "armed attack," which passed without criticism. In June 1993, when Clinton launched a missile attack on Baghdad, killing civilians, U.N. Ambassador Albright appealed to Article 51, explaining that the bombing was in "self-defense against armed attack" -- namely, an alleged attempt to assassinate former president Bush two months earlier. The claim would have been remarkable even if the U.S. had had credible evidence of Iraqi involvement, which, officials conceded, they did not.
"The U.S. has always relied on the rule of force in international affairs."
These and innumerable other examples illustrate far-reaching contempt for the rule of law. The U.S. has always relied on the rule of force in international affairs. International law, treaties, the World Court, War Crimes Tribunals, moral judgment, etc., are regularly invoked against enemies, often quite accurately. But the precedent to which Mr. Whitman refers has long been established.
The U.S., of course, is not alone in these practices. Other states commonly act in much the same way, if not constrained by external or internal forces. Hence the enormous moral responsibility of citizens, particularly in more powerful and free societies. We may decide to disregard the historical and documentary record, but it seems to me hardly wise or honorable to succumb to illusions about it.
Mr. James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, responds:
My answer to question 2 is relevant here. But some added points should be considered.
"Saddam's regime is unique in the world today in its demonstrated capacity for aggression and tyranny."
Saddam's regime is unique in the world today in its demonstrated capacity for aggression and tyranny. It has started two major wars, against Iran and against Kuwait. It has used weapons of mass destruction on a number of occasions, against Iran and against its own people. It's probably in a tie with North Korea for being the most repressive and tyrannical regime in today's world. And it is in a strategically important location. When Saddam stopped in August of 1990 at the Kuwait-Saudi border, he was about 100 miles from controlling half the world's oil reserves.
The regime has lied on numerous occasions about its programs for chemical and bacteriological weapons and the ballistic missiles that can carry them. It is under U.N. sanctions, voted by the Security Council, that should not be lifted unless it complies with all Security Council Resolutions, including its violations of the 1991 cease-fire. These sanctions are there not because the Security Council wants to pick on Iraq for some random reason, but because the Iraqi regime's behavior has been so uniqely execrable and so blatantly in violation of international law.
I think that under these circumstances Iraq is clearly in a position such that use of force against it, in some circumstances, is warranted. That use should not be indiscriminate. But if (one might as well say when) Saddam's regime next violates a Security Council mandate by blocking inspections or by other behavior, I believe force would be justified and that the use of force (air power, I would think) should focus on those entities, such as his Republican Guard, that support the regime's power.
I don't think that such use of force sets any precedent that we, or any other member of the Security Council or, for that matter, any other country will go dashing about the world randomly attacking people. Indeed I think that the risk is quite the reverse -- it is more likely that no one will act in time and thus we will fail to stop a dictator, such as Saddam, from extending his power the way we failed to stop Hitler in the 1930's.
As discussed in the answer to question 1, I see this set of issues as involving not some uniquely American right, but rather an obligation.
"It's a question whether you believe that this country's wealth and many blessings give it such an obligation to take action on occasion in order to preserve peace in the world ... even if we have to do it alone."
Sometimes someone has to do the job of dealing with the killers. It's a question whether you believe that this country's wealth and many blessings give it such an obligation to take action on occasion in order to preserve peace in the world and, what often amounts to the same thing, to stop dictators from going on rampages -- even if we have to do it alone. There's no better characterization of the difficulties of working through this kind of duty than the agonies, decisions, and actions of the sheriff played by Gary Cooper in "High Noon." Some would say that this means I'm saying we should act like a nation of cowboys. Like him, yes. Exactly.