U.S. Justice Robert Jackson, the chief of counsel for the prosecution at the Nuremberg Tribunal, addressed the Tribunal on the principle of universality, which is the foundation of any moral code that can be taken seriously. It’s the principle that we apply to ourselves the same standards that we apply to others, if not more stringent ones.
Justice Jackson admonished the Tribunal that this elementary principle must be its guide, or else its proceedings would be nothing but legal farce, an act of vengeance, victor’s justice. To quote Jackson’s memorable words:
The judgments of Nuremberg are incorporated into contemporary international laws as founding principles, and although the Tribunal was seriously and admittedly flawed, it’s regularly invoked as the precedent and the standard for subsequent tribunals up to today, which are presented as high-minded efforts to approach the standards of Nuremberg, invariably falling short.
One fundamental reason for their failure and their profoundly immoral character is that the principle of universality is universal in only one crucial respect: It’s universally rejected, with scarcely any departure. Worse, the rejection is scarcely if ever even noticed, and so deeply ingrained that we are now immune to fundamental moral and legal principles. The poisoned chalice has never approached the lips of the powerful. One task of the media is to see to that result.
The supreme international crime
Worse still, this is considered right and just, or, more accurately, is routinely concealed in a display of self-praise, tainted only by the recognition of failure and incompetence, which is reminiscent of concerns of the Nazi high command after Hitler made the foolish error of opening a two-front war. That is regrettably all too accurate a portrayal of the stance of the intellectual culture, the media in particular, with regard to the blood that’s on our hands from Nuremberg to the present day.
Actually, that ugly outcome was foreseen by the more acute participants in the Nuremberg proceedings, notably Telford Taylor, who was Jackson’s chief counsel for war crimes. The central crime addressed by the Nuremberg Tribunal, of course, was the crime of launching an aggressive war.
Quoting Taylor before the trials, he said, “This main phase of the case is based on the assumption that it is or will be declared a punishable offense to plan and launch”—and then he interpolated—“and lose?—an aggressive war.”
His question, “and lose?” was quickly proven to be all too appropriate: The crime is to lose an aggressive war. In retrospect, Taylor described Justice Jackson’s instructions to the tribunal as “beautiful words. But did the results match the aspiration?” It’s a rhetorical question, as he intended. The results could not have undermined the aspiration with more force and cruelty.
Aggression, in the Tribunal’s judgment, was identified as “the supreme international crime,” differing from others only in that it encompasses all of the evil that follows. So with Iraq, the supreme crime of aggression encompasses the savage destruction of Fallujah, sectarian violence, death squads, the desperate flight of 2 million people, displacement of 2 million others and the rest of the horrors of the past few years that are too familiar to review, with the aggressors absolved from blame except in marginal respects, in keeping with the conventional refusal to sip from the poisoned chalice.
There was no ambiguity in the definition of the “supreme international crime.” In Justice Jackson’s opening statement to the Tribunal, he defined an aggressor as “a state that is the first to commit such actions, as invasion of its armed forces with or without a declaration of war of the territory of another state.” Very clear.
But this provision applies unambiguously to the U.S./British invasion of Iraq, which is the leading issue on the international agenda today and by far the greatest concern of Americans, according to regular polls. There is vigorous debate about Iraq, but it’s within strict limits, which are familiar.
“Too costly for us”
Iraq is often compared to Vietnam, but the comparison is accurate in one respect only: namely, how the war is perceived by the aggressors. In almost every other respect, it is radically different. But particularly instructive, as always, is the interpretation of the doves at the extreme critical end of the admissible spectrum. These are the guardians of the permissible thought.
In both cases, Vietnam and Iraq, the doves condemn the war as a quagmire. “Too costly” to the U.S., to quote one representative example from Vietnam of the way-out extreme of critical commentary. At the war’s end, Times columnist Anthony Lewis explained that U.S. intervention began with “blundering efforts to do good” (4/21/75), but by 1969 most people realized that it was a “disastrous mistake” and that the U.S. could not “impose a solution except at a price too costly to itself” (12/27/79).
1969 was a year after corporate America had called for the enterprise to be liquidated; the U.S. had attained its basic goals. And 1969 was two years after the highly respected military historian and Vietnam specialist Bernard Fall (Last Reflections on a War, 1967) warned that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity” was “threatened with extinction,” while in the South—always the main target of U.S. aggression in Vietnam—“the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area this size.”
But at the liberal dovish end of the spectrum, it was becoming too costly to us. That’s as far as you could go—though not for the U.S. population. By 1978, 72 percent of the U.S. population regarded the war as not “a mistake,” but “fundamentally wrong and immoral” (“American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy,” Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, 1983). Those figures about Vietnam have remained pretty constant to the present, which is remarkable, because everyone reaches that conclusion on their own. The words are unpronounceable in the mainstream.
In one other case, we have liberal American historian and Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger: At first he supported the Kennedy/Johnson aggression. But four years after Kennedy launched the direct aggression, Schlesinger was having second thoughts, as he wrote in The Bitter Heritage:
We all pray that the hawks will be right and that sending more troops will bring us victory. And if the surge of that day works, we may all be praising the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government in winning victory in a tragic country gutted and devastated by bombs, a land of ruin and wreck.
But he doubted that it would work. So he was at the dovish extreme, and he therefore added, “No thoughtful American can withhold sympathy as President Johnson ponders the gloomy choices that lie ahead.” That is, sympathy for the president, but not for his victims. And the translation to the present moment is perfectly straightforward. With a few changes of names, it’s what you read today in the papers.
It’s kind of significant that Schle-singer’s position on the Iraq War was radically different. As the bombing of Iraq began in March 2003, he recalled the words of President Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor, and he wrote that the bombing of Baghdad too is “a date which will live in infamy” as the U.S. embraces the policies of imperial Japan. That was a lonely voice in the mainstream. When Schlesinger died a few months ago, he was greatly honored, but not for this statement, which was effectively dispatched to the memory hole. Much as in the case of Vietnam, the prevailing attitudes about the Iraq aggression are that it was benign—benign in intent, by definition—but becoming too costly to us as a result of the incompetence and errors of the political leadership.
Gone from history
Also gone from history, meaning coverage, is Washington’s torture of the Iraqi people in earlier years from the CIA sponsored coup of 1963—it was certainly backed, probably initiated, by the CIA. That’s the coup that laid the basis for the rule of Saddam Hussein, a rule that Washington strongly supported from virtually its outset. As you all know, Saddam was hanged for crimes that he committed in 1982, crimes that were minor by his standards—only 150 people killed.
With impressive discipline, the media and commentators failed to notice that 1982 was an important year in U.S.-Iraq relations. It was in 1982 that President Ronald Reagan removed Iraq from the list of states supporting terrorism so that the U.S. could begin to provide Saddam with substantial aid, including means of developing weapons of mass destruction. To firm up the deal, Reagan sent his special emissary to Baghdad, namely Donald Rumsfeld. Along with others, the U.S. and British support for Saddam continued without a break right through its most horrendous crimes, and long after the end of the war with Iran.
In 1989, the first Bush administration invited three Iraqi scientists to attend a detonation conference in Oregon, where they learned from experts all over the world how shock waves detonate nuclear weapons. They were being trained in advanced means to develop nuclear weapons. In December 1989, Bush was sending materials that the Iraq regime could use for nuclear, missile and chemical purposes. Actually, I am drawing from congressional records and not from the press, which has kept this far removed from sight for 15 years now.
In April 1990, Bush sent a high-level senatorial delegation to Iraq, led by Senate majority leader Bob Dole, later a Republican presidential candidate. Their mission was to bring President George H.W. Bush’s greetings to his friend Saddam and to assure him of U.S. support. Four months after the Bush mission, Saddam invaded Kuwait, either disobeying or misunderstanding orders. That’s a real crime. That shifted him from the category of honored friend to embodiment of evil.
Victors are not investigated
The invasion of Kuwait was indeed a crime, though not by Saddam’s standards, or for that matter by U.S. standards. A few months earlier, the United States had invaded Panama, vetoing a couple of Security Council resolutions and killing probably thousands of mostly poor people, more than died in Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. We don’t know the details, because it’s a firm principle of international affairs and moral culture that the victors do not permit investigation of their own crimes, so we only have the victims’ reports.
At the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, American public opinion was strongly in favor of a diplomatic solution, a solution which would combine Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait with international negotiations to settle regional crises. That’s actually pretty much what Saddam had proposed, though the media politely withheld the information, except for one newspaper, Newsday (8/4/00), which is a suburban newspaper in New York’s Long Island. And the war was followed by a return of support for Saddam Hussein, as he then turned to the slaughter of the Shia to suppress an uprising that probably would have overthrown him, had he not been effectively authorized by Washington to crush it.
And the reasons were not suppressed; they were frankly acknowledged. New York Times Mideast correspondent Alan Cowell (4/11/91) explained that there was a strikingly unanimous view among the United States and its allies, Britain and Saudi Arabia, that Saddam offered the West and the region a better hope for his country’s stability than those who have suffered his repression. So we therefore, unhappily, have to support Saddam’s crushing of the rebellion.
At that point, the task of torturing the Iraqis was turned over to Bill Clinton and the sanctions regime, which was so visibly murderous that by 1996 it was felt necessary to introduce humanitarian modification—that would be the Oil for Food Program, which magnanimously permitted Iraq to use a fraction of its own resources to save its own population from total destruction, though in sharply limited ways, carefully controlled by the United States and Britain.
The first director of the program, the distinguished international diplomat Denis Halliday, resigned in protest after two years, condemning the “humanitarian” program as genocidal. He was replaced by another highly respected international diplomat, Hans Von Sponeck. He also resigned after a couple of years, charging that the Clinton/Blair administrations’ sanctions violated the genocide convention. They are well-documented charges, and are scrupulously ignored by those who posture grandly about genocide when they detect the crimes of some official enemy.
Too important to mention
But Halliday and Von Sponeck were iced out of the U.S. media during the buildup to the 2003 invasion, although—or because—they knew more about Iraq than any other Westerners. Or perhaps it’s because the media agreed with the official Clinton State Department position when it blocked Von Sponeck’s efforts to bring the grisly record to the Security Council. Their phrase was, “This man in Baghdad was paid to work, not to talk.”
He does talk, however. And in free societies like ours we are lucky to be able to read Von Sponeck’s detailed and devastating account of the effect of the genocidal sanctions. His book, called A Different Kind of War, appeared last year. It’s one of those books that is too important to be reviewed or mentioned. A database search a couple of days ago found not a single mention of it in the United States. And in England, a single review in the Morning Star (4/24/07), not exactly in the mainstream. Robert Fisk also brought it up in the Independent (1/20/07). It’s quite easy, however, to find ample praise for Tony Blair’s profound moral convictions as he stepped down from his office.
We can find out something about the effects of the Clinton/Blair sanctions, at least obliquely, if we read closely. So a couple of weeks ago, the media did report that Iraq has suffered the worst increase in child mortality of any country on record. If you look at the small print, you will notice that it is since 1990. That is, as a result of the sanctions regime and the war.
For the liberal hawks, a retrospective justification for the war after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction is that at least it rid the country of a brutal regime. That has the merit of being half true. It rid the country of two brutal regimes: Saddam Hussein’s, and the sanctions regime, which apparently killed far more Iraqis than Saddam. But only one of them is mentionable.
Also unmentionable is the belief expressed by Halliday and Von Sponeck that if Clinton and Blair had permitted Iraqi society to revive, Iraqis themselves might have dealt properly with Saddam’s tyranny and probably sent him to the same fate as a series of other vicious tyrants, many quite comparable to him and supported by the United States and Britain to the last days of their bloody rule: Ceausescu, Suharto, Marcos, Duvalier and a long gallery of others, to which new names are added regularly. None of this arouses any thoughts about our benign intentions to do good.
We own the world
The outcome in Iraq, as you certainly know, is an unmitigated disaster. It’s not surprising that last year, according to State Department polls, two-thirds of the people in Baghdad wanted the United States to leave immediately. Large majorities elsewhere wanted the United States to withdraw within a year, which would mean within the next few months; and a vast majority felt that the presence of U.S. forces increases the level of violence. Sixty percent regarded U.S. forces as legitimate targets of attack.
Now, these figures include Kurds, and they are much higher in the Arab areas where the troops are actually deployed. These figures have been rising steadily for some time, and are presumably higher by now. And the U.S. public largely agrees; by a large majority, the public favors a firm timetable for withdrawal. The government reaction is escalation, the surge.
The Democratic majority has proposed alternatives, but they are pretty pallid, even the one that was vetoed. When you look at them closely, there is a national security exemption, meaning if national security is at stake, do what you like. There is an exemption for combating international terrorism, also an open door.
It is not quite true that there is no call for attending to public opinion in Iraq and the U.S. There are commonly exceptions in a free press. I’ll quote just one, forthright and explicit (Condoleeza Rice, 4/29/07): “What do we need to do? It’s quite obvious. Stop the flow of arms to foreign fighters. Stop the flow of foreign fighters across the borders.” Rice is referring to Iranians, of course. U.S. forces and arms are not foreign. They are indigenous. There is a tacit premise which underlies all public discussion about Iraq across the spectrum: We own the world. That is unmentionable, unnoticed.
This example illustrates a crucial dif-ference between propaganda systems in totalitarian states and democratic societies. In a totalitarian state, the party line is usually announced clearly and explicitly. And you better repeat it, and say it when you’re asked, or you get sent to the gulag or the torture chamber or something. You don’t have to believe it, you just have to repeat it.
In democratic societies, that doesn’t work. The state has lost the capacity to control the population by violence. And so, therefore, the propaganda line somehow has to be believed or internalized. And so what you do in a democratic society is you never articulate the party line. You never see an editorial saying, We own the world, so therefore we are not foreign anywhere. That would be a bad mistake.
What you do is just presuppose the party line, never say it, and then you encourage vigorous debate within the framework established by the party line. That gives the impression that the society is free and open, and also helps instill the party line, because you can’t even carry out the debate unless you accept it. And so it just becomes like air you breathe, and you accept the way the world is. That’s democratic propaganda.
Noam Chomsky, author, linguist and social critic, is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This article is adapted from a talk he gave at the 20 Years of Propaganda? conference in Windsor, Ontario on May 17, 2007.