Thursday, September 09, 2010

Noam Chomsky and Edward Said on Kosovo

[This is the Q and A period at Columbia University on April 4th, 1999]
[Transcript I contributed for Democracy Now!]

Amy Goodman: NATO struck Serbia’s industrial heartland today, returning to sites already hard hit in the allied air campaign. As NATO foreign ministers convened today in Belgium for their first meeting since the air strikes began nearly three weeks ago, refugee agencies continue to express deep concern over the more than half-million ethnic Albanians who have left Kosovo and the hundreds of thousands of others displaced within the province. While the mainstream media here in the United States continues to cover the war in Yugoslavia, through the voices of military experts, NATO spokespeople and US government officials, we’re going to bring you something else. The discussion in a next few days as the Congress goes back to session, is about options. That’s right. The way the mainstream media in this country defines options is whether the air strikes should be followed by ground troops. That’s the spectrum of discussion that takes place in most of the media. Today we’ll bring you voices of dissent that have been effectively blocked out almost everywhere else. We first turn to two of America’s most respected political dissidents: Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. They spoke last Friday at Columbia University at a special event on the Middle East. We’re going to first hear from Edward Said and then Noam Chomsky as they go back and forth on the issue of Kosovo. Their major addresses were about the Middle East but at the end of the Q and A period, a student from Columbia University asked what they felt about the bombing.

Edward Said is a professor of English comparative literature at Columbia University and analyst on Middle East politics. He’s written over dozen books including Peace and its Discontents, essays on Palestine and the Middle East Peace Process, also Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. He was a member of Palestine Liberation Council between 1977 and 1991, when he left.

Noam Chomsky is a world renowned linguist, scholar and political analyst, author of dozens of books including Manufacturing Consent, Profit over People. We first turn to Edward Said responding to that question about the bombing of Yugoslavia.

Edward Said: I don’t want to give a whole thing on the current situation in Yugoslavia but a number of things need to be said. In the first place, obviously, I mean I tried to emphasize this in my talk, I mean, I see the evils of ethnic cleansing and forced dispossession which is taking place by the forces of Serbia under Milosevic. And there’s obviously a parallel there between what happened to Palestinians in 1948.

And I certainly want also to add, since you talked about Iraq, that there can be no brief at all for what Saddam Hussein has wrought on the people of Iraq and the neighborhood. But one should remember that these are not things that happened out of context and just suddenly, suddenly we discovered the monstrosity of these regimes. Saddam was supported very, very methodically during the 80s especially during the Iranian-Iraq war by the United States and European powers.

And Milosevic was always involved. I mean the Dayton Accord made a point of really sub-- sidelining the Bosnians and dealing with Milosevic (Chomsky: Kosovars) and the Kosovars, of course. So, the policy, now, of bombing, it has to be seen in the context of US moves elsewhere. And that is to say that at the same time that this action is taking place—a kind of clean war, safe war, you know, no US pilots hurt, etc, with these smart bombs and so on and so forth, devastation of a country—there is a war being waged by a NATO ally, Turkey, against the Kurd:46,000 Kurds have been killed. And not a word has been said about this by the United States which simply tolerates it.

I think these false dichotomies, either you’re with, as you--it used to be said during the Gulf War, either you’re for fascism or you’re for imperialism, you have to be for imperialism because it’s always slightly better than fascism, and you know, fascism [inaudible].These are the kinds of false dichotomies we’re placed into at the current moment. And I think that the net result out again without any particular plan or without any notion of what’s going to be done afterward, given the history of other refugees in the last fifty years. It seems unlikely that this action on the part of NATO and the United States is going to produce anything except more destruction and more fragmentation and dispossession and probably at the end Clinton will walk away and say he had a success.

Noam Chomsky: Well, I’ll be brief. I think the first thing we ought to do when facing this--it’s a difficult and complicated issue--but the first thing we at least ought to agree is to be honest. If we don’t want to be honest, then let’s just stop this discussion. If we are willing to be honest, we see instantly that it cannot possibly be an operation resulting from humanitarian concerns. I mean that’s just trivial. I’ll leave...take one example that Edward mentioned, in which incidentally I disagree with him. He said that the US ignored the Turkish atrocities in Kurdistan, which is absolutely untrue, as he agrees I’m sure—the US worked as hard as it could to escalate those atrocities. In fact, in nineteen—and this is not, you know, this is not ancient history. I mean atrocities in southeastern Turkey which, well beyond Kosovo, peaked in 1994; it was a peak year of atrocities. It was also the peak year of US provision of weapons under Clinton to Turkey, that included jet planes, Napalm, anti-personnel weapons, tanks all of which were used. In fact, Turkey became the biggest importer of weapons in the world, thanks to the huge supply of weapons that Clinton was offering them to consummate a destruction and massacre which unfortunately was well beyond what’s happening in Kosovo or had happened. Remember 2000 people were killed there last year according to NATO.

And in fact, Clinton even had to evade congressional restrictions. Human rights groups found that US jets were being used illegally to bomb Kurds. And the humanitarian Clinton had to find ways of evading those restrictions to allow the jet planes to keep going to keep bombing Kurds. So, that’s just one example of many. There’s no possibility that this is a humanitarian operation.

That leaves with the question whether we should carry it out. OK, a separate question. And so, now you look and see. Where were we on March 24th, when the bombing started? Well, there, according to NATO, had been 2000 people killed in the past year, as Serbians responded brutally to KLA attacks on police stations and so on. 

Incidentally, you might ask yourself how the United States would respond to attacks on police stations in New York by a guerrilla group being supported by, say, Libya, and based across the border? This, but put that aside. But in any event, the response was brutal, a couple thousand people were killed, a few hundred thousand refugees.

On March 24th, the way the situation stood was--well, actually I learned something interesting in the New York Times yesterday, hidden down at the bottom of a column, the place which is usually useful to begin reading--it turns out, I had another speech for it, that the Serbian Parliament had called for—before the bombing—had called for UN forces to be in Kosovo as observers where the US was insisting on NATO forces. Well, that’s consistent with US contempt for and hatred for the United Nations or for any other international institution. But it does put a rather different cast on the situation.

There were clearly negotiating opportunities and options that could be pursued. The US picked one option. It was an option which was guaranteed practically to make the situations far worse. I want to express my opinion. Let me just quote the US/NATO commander. On March 26th, Wesley Clark, two days after the bombing started, he said in his words, it was “entirely predictable” that as a result of the bombing, there would be a vast escalation of Serbian atrocities on the ground.

Well, you know, “entirely predictable” was too strong, the world is not that simple. Nothing is entirely predictable. But it was pretty obvious that they were going to react somehow. And they were going to react where they have strength. Well, they don’t have strength in the air, you know, they have strength on the ground. So, they were going to react the way they did, you know, by sharply increasing the attacks and so on. If you look at the number of refugees, the UN had registered zero refugees in Albania and Macedonia. There were some but they weren’t registered by the UN as of March 26th, in fact. That’s when the refugee flow started. It was after the bombing.

The effects of the bombing, rather predictably, not entirely, predictably as the NATO general stated, rather predictably, were to sharply increase the damage to the populations, the harm to the populations very severely, all populations. Other effects were that it wiped out a very promising and courageous democratic movement in Belgrade, which was best hope for getting rid of this gangster, Milosevic, with whom we’d been dealing. It’s having…I mean everyone rallies around the flag, you know, just the way we would do if New York started getting bombed. So that’s going on, at least for the moment, maybe forever. The very harsh effects on the surrounding regions. There is yet another attack on the system of international law and World Order. Well, like if you are Saddam Hussein you don’t take this very seriously. But maybe not everybody accepts the standards of Saddam Hussein. Maybe there’s some people who think that we ought to have some sort of regime of international order which provides at least some support for the weak, which doesn’t provide any support for the strong; they don’t need it. But it provides some the restrictions against the use of force, provides some protection for the weak, OK, we will have another blow against that. In fact, across the board it’s disaster; say, human disaster. In fact, so, forgetting the―even the possibility that this was—it had humanitarian motives, of course it didn’t, we have to ask what it meant. Well, that’s approximately what it meant. It doesn’t look very much in doubt and it looks as if there were alternatives. There still are alternatives as there always are.

In fact, let me just put the whole thing in a kind of mundane level. Like, suppose you walk out in the street this evening. And you see a crime being committed. You know, somebody is robbing someone else. Well, you have three choices. One choice is to try to stop it. You know, like maybe call 911 or something. Another choice is to do nothing. Third choice is to pick up an assault rifle and kill them both and kill the bystanders at the same time, you know. Well, suppose you do that. And somebody says, well, you know, why did you do that? And you’d say, look, I couldn’t stand my doing nothing, you know. I mean, is that a response? You know? Why—I mean if he can think of nothing that wouldn’t do harm, then do nothing, you know. And the same is true magnified in international affairs apart from in fact that there were things that could have been done.

Edward Said: But I want to add one other thing if I may, that this--at the same time that this war is going on, the United States is continuing to bomb Iraq. Again, on the bottom of the pages of the New York Times. I think one of the things, one of the demonstrations, I think, behind the action in Yugoslavia is a kind of projection of US power and the assertion that the US can fight regional wars more than one, maybe two, three, four at a time. And interestingly, one of your favorite columnists, Thomas Friedman, the other day, was saying in the New York Times that, he says it’s sort of a repetition of the—some of the tactics used during the Indo-Chinese episode. That is to say: to appear as irrational as possible. And he was advocating the unreasonable use of force, in another words, just for the sake of the force, not to achieve any particular results but to show the people who is boss. And it’s, I think that mentality is very much part of it.

And the second point to be made is the continued attack upon the United Nations. That is to say: the United Nations is “useful” in Iraq. You know, they can use resolutions that the United States push through continued Arrears in dues and the continued scorn for attempts at peace making and so on and so forth, as in Rwanda in 1994. But essentially the United Nations is a contemptible body. And as most people in the Senate and the House both, they have never been out of the United States, they don’t even have a passport. So, “Why should we care about the world body that gives---that tries to take sovereignty away from the United Nations?” I think that’s also part of it. I mean this is assertion of World Number One without much interest at all in any possible outcome that anyone can possibly see is anything but bleak.


Amy Goodman: You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! The exception to the rulers, I’m Amy Goodman. We move on our War and Peace Report. We started it during the bombing of Iraq, now dealing with the bombing of Yugoslavia. And we bring to the conclusion of the discussion between Columbia University professor Edward Said and MIT professor Noam Chomsky on the bombing. This is Professor Chomsky.

Noam Chomsky: Let me just say on this matter of looking irrational. Thomas Friedman didn’t make it up. That’s the official US policy. (Said: It is, yeah.) There is a national defense--forget the name of it—in 1995, which proposed that—that, which is partially declassified—which proposed that the United States should maintain an irrational posture in which it would look like a dangerous, irrational state because that will frighten people and we should use the nuclear arsenals that way. The more uncertain they are, the more power we have. Now there’s actually an Orwellian phrase for this, which is repeated by Clinton and his little puppy dog Tony Blair, Madeleine Albright and everyone else. The phrase is “we have to preserve the credibility of NATO.” That’s the main argument that’s given. Well, try to decode that. I mean, are they worried about the credibility of Denmark? You know, or of Italy? NO. The credibility of NATO means credibility of the United States. Now, what does credibility mean? Well, credibility means, like what any Mafia don would understand. If somebody doesn’t pay, you know, what they’re supposed to do in a grocery store, the don has to maintain credibility. Other people have to understand that you don’t do this, you know, credibility means be frightened of the enforcer, so, and that once you carry out translation, I think, you can see what’s going on. I think that’s exactly what Edward said. That’s a major motivation. You have to preserve the credibility the enforcer. And I mean if we do it by being irrational and violent and destructive, well, you know, that’s where the cookie crumbles.

Edward Said: I have a tiny footnote to this, is, to bring it back to the Middle East. I mean it’s irrational for Israeli policy in Lebanon. (Chomsky: Yeah.) You know, where you occupy a strip of land and you say this is to protect yourself, so you occupy more land inside another sovereign state. And then you mete out punishment through mercenaries but certainly by air—you know, the clean bombing, you know, use of air craft and so on and so forth. And then of course, when you meet resistance, you call them terrorists. And it’s--what’s interesting is how the US presses follow along with this logic so that whenever they talk about the Hisbullah guerrillas in southern Lebanon fighting the Israeli occupation, all is referred to it is “Iran’s supported terrorist Hisbullah” and so on and so forth.

But the footnote I wanted actually to bring attention to with around the–well, just before the middle of March, it must have been around the 11th or 12th of March, the Israelis invaded further north, it took another area in a town called Arnoon, just north of the security zone in southern Lebanon. And they surrounded it and they took the village. This kicked out the most of the inhabitants and put barbed wire around it. A couple of days later, there were big demonstrations in Beirut and a bunch of students came down from Beirut by bus to Arnoon in southern Lebanon to this newly occupied town north of the Israeli zone but which was just recently occupied by Israelis. And they stood in front of the barbed wire, warned off. The Israelis shot rifles in the air [and] warned that they--the wires were full of electricity and that there were land mines and so on and so forth. Then you know, as it happens in situations with crowds and so on, a couple of them, of the Lebanese students attacked the barbed wire which of course was not wired and there were no land mine and liberated the town. And the Israeli soldiers with all their arms ran away. It’s a small episode in a generally not brave, distinguished history of conflict but it does show at times that a bully can be confronted.

Amy Goodman: That was Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. Professor Edward Said of Columbia University professor of English and comparative literature and Noam Chomsky, a world renowned political analyst, critic and linguist, speaking at Columbia University last Friday at a forum on Middle East politics sponsored by the Italian Academy for advanced studies in America.


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