The Bombing of Iraq: U.S. War Crime

By Noam Chomsky

The US and its increasingly pathetic British lieutenant want the world to understand – and in particular want the people of the Middle East region to understand – that “What We Say Goes,” as Bush defined his New World Order while the missiles were raining on Baghdad in February 1991. The message, clear and simple, is that we are violent and lawless states, and if you don’t like it, get out of our way. It’s a message of no small significance. Simply have a look at the projections of geologists concerning the expanding role of Middle East oil in global energy production in the coming decades. I suspect that the message is understood in the places to which it is addressed.

A very conservative assessment is that the US/UK attacks are “aggression,” to borrow the apt term of the Vatican and others. They are as clear an example of a war crime as one could construct. In the past, acts of aggression, international terrorism, and violence have sometimes been cloaked in at least a pretense of legalism – increasingly ludicrous over the years, to be sure. In this case there was not even a pretense. Rather, the US and its client simply informed the world that they are criminal states, and that the structure of binding international law and conventions that has been laboriously constructed over many years is now terminated. It is still available, of course, as a weapon against designated enemies, but apart from that it is without significance or value. True, that has always been operative reality, but it has rarely been declared with such clarity and dramatic force.

As for the moral level, if the word can even be used, it is hard to improve on the pronouncements of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Two years ago, when asked on national TV about her reaction to reports that the sanctions she administers have killed half a million Iraqi children in five years, she responded that it is “a very hard choice,” but “we think the price is worth it.” We know well enough on what page of history those sentiments belong. Today, suggesting a reversal of Washington’s policy since 1991 of seeking a military dictatorship to replace Saddam Hussein’s in name at least, she explains that “we have come to the determination that the Iraqi people would benefit if they had a government that really represented them.” We need not tarry on the plausibility of this sudden conversion. The fact that the words can be articulated tells us more than enough.

The most ominous aspect of all of this is, perhaps, that the openly declared contempt for the law of nations and professed norms of civilized behavior proceeds without eliciting even a twitter of principled comment among the educated classes. Their position, with impressive uniformity, is that the criminal stance of the US and its client are so obviously valid as to be beyond discussion, even beyond thought. If such matters as international law or the opinions and wishes of the population of the region intrude at all, which is very rare, they are dismissed as a “technicality,” with no bearing on the decisions of the global ruler. Not only are the warrior states officially declaring (not for the first time, to be sure) that the foundations of international order are an absurd irrelevance, but they are doing so with the virtually unanimous endorsement of the educated classes. The world should take notice, and it surely does, outside of narrow sectors of privilege and power.