Noam Chomsky: How Imperial Violence Backfires – Lessons from the Middle East

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By Noam Chomsky, institute professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among his recent books are Hegemony or Survival and Failed States.

This piece, the second of two parts, is excerpted from his new book, Who Rules the World? (Metropolitan Books).  Part 2 will be posted on Tuesday morning. Originally published at TomDispatch

In brief, the Global War on Terror sledgehammer strategy has spread jihadi terror from a tiny corner of Afghanistan to much of the world, from Africa through the Levant and South Asia to Southeast Asia. It has also incited attacks in Europe and the United States. The invasion of Iraq made a substantial contribution to this process, much as intelligence agencies had predicted. Terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank estimate that the Iraq War “generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost; even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third.” Other exercises have been similarly productive.

A group of major human rights organizations — Physicians for Social Responsibility (U.S.), Physicians for Global Survival (Canada), and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Germany) — conducted a study that sought “to provide as realistic an estimate as possible of the total body count in the three main war zones [Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan] during 12 years of ‘war on terrorism,'” including an extensive review “of the major studies and data published on the numbers of victims in these countries,” along with additional information on military actions. Their “conservative estimate” is that these wars killed about 1.3 million people, a toll that “could also be in excess of 2 million.” A database search by independent researcher David Peterson in the days following the publication of the report found virtually no mention of it. Who cares?

More generally, studies carried out by the Oslo Peace Research Institute show that two-thirds of the region’s conflict fatalities were produced in originally internal disputes where outsiders imposed their solutions. In such conflicts, 98% of fatalities were produced only after outsiders had entered the domestic dispute with their military might. In Syria, the number of direct conflict fatalities more than tripled after the West initiated air strikes against the self-declared Islamic State and the CIA started its indirect military interference in the war — interference which appears to have drawn the Russians in as advanced US antitank missiles were decimating the forces of their ally Bashar al-Assad. Early indications are that Russian bombing is having the usual consequences.

The evidence reviewed by political scientist Timo Kivimäki indicates that the “protection wars [fought by ‘coalitions of the willing’] have become the main source of violence in the world, occasionally contributing over 50% of total conflict fatalities.” Furthermore, in many of these cases, including Syria, as he reviews, there were opportunities for diplomatic settlement that were ignored. That has also been true in other horrific situations, including the Balkans in the early 1990s, the first Gulf War, and of course the Indochina wars, the worst crime since World War II. In the case of Iraq the question does not even arise. There surely are some lessons here.

The general consequences of resorting to the sledgehammer against vulnerable societies comes as little surprise. William Polk’s careful study of insurgencies, Violent Politics, should be essential reading for those who want to understand today’s conflicts, and surely for planners, assuming that they care about human consequences and not merely power and domination. Polk reveals a pattern that has been replicated over and over. The invaders — perhaps professing the most benign motives — are naturally disliked by the population, who disobey them, at first in small ways, eliciting a forceful response, which increases opposition and support for resistance. The cycle of violence escalates until the invaders withdraw — or gain their ends by something that may approach genocide.

Playing by the Al-Qaeda Game Plan

Obama’s global drone assassination campaign, a remarkable innovation in global terrorism, exhibits the same patterns. By most accounts, it is generating terrorists more rapidly than it is murdering those suspected of someday intending to harm us — an impressive contribution by a constitutional lawyer on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which established the basis for the principle of presumption of innocence that is the foundation of civilized law.

Another characteristic feature of such interventions is the belief that the insurgency will be overcome by eliminating its leaders. But when such an effort succeeds, the reviled leader is regularly replaced by someone younger, more determined, more brutal, and more effective. Polk gives many examples. Military historian Andrew Cockburn has reviewed American campaigns to kill drug and then terror “kingpins” over a long period in his important study Kill Chain and found the same results. And one can expect with fair confidence that the pattern will continue.

No doubt right now U.S. strategists are seeking ways to murder the “Caliph of the Islamic State” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is a bitter rival of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The likely result of this achievement is forecast by the prominent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman, senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. He predicts that “al-Baghdadi’s death would likely pave the way for a rapprochement [with al-Qaeda] producing a combined terrorist force unprecedented in scope, size, ambition and resources.”

Polk cites a treatise on warfare by Henry Jomini, influenced by Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Spanish guerrillas, that became a textbook for generations of cadets at the West Point military academy. Jomini observed that such interventions by major powers typically result in “wars of opinion,” and nearly always “national wars,” if not at first then becoming so in the course of the struggle, by the dynamics that Polk describes. Jomini concludes that “commanders of regular armies are ill-advised to engage in such wars because they will lose them,” and even apparent successes will prove short-lived.

Careful studies of al-Qaeda and ISIS have shown that the United States and its allies are following their game plan with some precision. Their goal is to “draw the West as deeply and actively as possible into the quagmire” and “to perpetually engage and enervate the United States and the West in a series of prolonged overseas ventures” in which they will undermine their own societies, expend their resources, and increase the level of violence, setting off the dynamic that Polk reviews.

Scott Atran, one of the most insightful researchers on jihadi movements, calculates that “the 9/11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute, whereas the military and security response by the U.S. and its allies is in the order of 10 million times that figure. On a strictly cost-benefit basis, this violent movement has been wildly successful, beyond even Bin Laden’s original imagination, and is increasingly so. Herein lies the full measure of jujitsu-style asymmetric warfare. After all, who could claim that we are better off than before, or that the overall danger is declining?”

And if we continue to wield the sledgehammer, tacitly following the jihadi script, the likely effect is even more violent jihadism with broader appeal. The record, Atran advises, “should inspire a radical change in our counter-strategies.”

Al-Qaeda/ISIS are assisted by Americans who follow their directives: for example, Ted “carpet-bomb ’em” Cruz, a top Republican presidential candidate. Or, at the other end of the mainstream spectrum, the leading Middle East and international affairs columnist of the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, who in 2003 offered Washington advice on how to fight in Iraq on the Charlie Rose show: “There was what I would call the terrorism bubble… And what we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically, and, uh, take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. And there was only one way to do it… What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go? Well, suck on this. Ok. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.”

That’ll show the ragheads.

Looking Forward

Atran and other close observers generally agree on the prescriptions. We should begin by recognizing what careful research has convincingly shown: those drawn to jihad “are longing for something in their history, in their traditions, with their heroes and their morals; and the Islamic State, however brutal and repugnant to us and even to most in the Arab-Muslim world, is speaking directly to that… What inspires the most lethal assailants today is not so much the Quran but a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends.” In fact, few of the jihadis have much of a background in Islamic texts or theology, if any.

The best strategy, Polk advises, would be “a multinational, welfare-oriented and psychologically satisfying program… that would make the hatred ISIS relies upon less virulent. The elements have been identified for us: communal needs, compensation for previous transgressions, and calls for a new beginning.” He adds, “A carefully phrased apology for past transgressions would cost little and do much.” Such a project could be carried out in refugee camps or in the “hovels and grim housing projects of the Paris banlieues,” where, Atran writes, his research team “found fairly wide tolerance or support for ISIS’s values.” And even more could be done by true dedication to diplomacy and negotiations instead of reflexive resort to violence.

Not least in significance would be an honorable response to the “refugee crisis” that was a long time in coming but surged to prominence in Europe in 2015. That would mean, at the very least, sharply increasing humanitarian relief to the camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey where miserable refugees from Syria barely survive. But the issues go well beyond, and provide a picture of the self-described “enlightened states” that is far from attractive and should be an incentive to action.

There are countries that generate refugees through massive violence, like the United States, secondarily Britain and France. Then there are countries that admit huge numbers of refugees, including those fleeing from Western violence, like Lebanon (easily the champion, per capita), Jordan, and Syria before it imploded, among others in the region. And partially overlapping, there are countries that both generate refugees and refuse to take them in, not only from the Middle East but also from the U.S. “backyard” south of the border. A strange picture, painful to contemplate.

An honest picture would trace the generation of refugees much further back into history. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk reports that one of the first videos produced by ISIS “showed a bulldozer pushing down a rampart of sand that had marked the border between Iraq and Syria. As the machine destroyed the dirt revetment, the camera panned down to a handwritten poster lying in the sand. ‘End of Sykes-Picot,’ it said.”

For the people of the region, the Sykes-Picot agreement is the very symbol of the cynicism and brutality of Western imperialism. Conspiring in secret during World War I, Britain’s Mark Sykes and France’s François Georges-Picot carved up the region into artificial states to satisfy their own imperial goals, with utter disdain for the interests of the people living there and in violation of the wartime promises issued to induce Arabs to join the Allied war effort. The agreement mirrored the practices of the European states that devastated Africa in a similar manner. It “transformed what had been relatively quiet provinces of the Ottoman Empire into some of the least stable and most internationally explosive states in the world.”

Repeated Western interventions since then in the Middle East and Africa have exacerbated the tensions, conflicts, and disruptions that have shattered the societies. The end result is a “refugee crisis” that the innocent West can scarcely endure. Germany has emerged as the conscience of Europe, at first (but no longer) admitting almost one million refugees — in one of the richest countries in the world with a population of 80 million. In contrast, the poor country of Lebanon has absorbed an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, now a quarter of its population, on top of half a million Palestinian refugees registered with the U.N. refugee agency UNRWA, mostly victims of Israeli policies.

Europe is also groaning under the burden of refugees from the countries it has devastated in Africa — not without U.S. aid, as Congolese and Angolans, among others, can testify. Europe is now seeking to bribe Turkey (with over two million Syrian refugees) to distance those fleeing the horrors of Syria from Europe’s borders, just as Obama is pressuring Mexico to keep U.S. borders free from miserable people seeking to escape the aftermath of Reagan’s GWOT along with those seeking to escape more recent disasters, including a military coup in Honduras that Obama almost alone legitimized, which created one of the worst horror chambers in the region.

Words can hardly capture the U.S. response to the Syrian refugee crisis, at least any words I can think of.

Returning to the opening question “Who rules the world?” we might also want to pose another question: “What principles and values rule the world?” That question should be foremost in the minds of the citizens of the rich and powerful states, who enjoy an unusual legacy of freedom, privilege, and opportunity thanks to the struggles of those who came before them, and who now face fateful choices as to how to respond to challenges of great human import.

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  1. EndOfTheWorld

    Chomsky is sometimes called a “radical”, but he doesn’t deserve that appellation when he calmly discusses the ridiculous US policy in the Muddle East. I think the majority of people in the US and in the world would agree that the Iraq war was a stupid waste.

    1. MikeNY

      A stupid, counterproductive waste.

      Sometimes when I’m watching or reading MSM news accounts of our tomboobery in the ME, I’m dumbstruck that no one stops to ask: Wait: why, by what right, do we drop bombs on impoverished nations 5000+ miles from our shores?

        1. J

          That was consistent with a popular view on my regional college campus. It could be summed up as, “let’s stick it to the Arabs.” No attempt to differentiate the different nations/ethnicities/creeds etc. We were all absolutely furious about 9/11, which inconveniently had nothing to do with Iraq.

          Of course, once the thing began to spin out of control, there were more “I was always skeptical” types.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, thats the ridiculous thing – everything in this article is simple common sense. You don’t need a degree in military history, or anthropology, or sociology, to know that Chomsky is almost certainly right (or even if he’s wrong, its a much cheaper way to be wrong than invading countries). Ultimately, the media has created a narrative discourse where such common sense is considered far outside the Overton Window. And yet, I suspect that a silent majority (or at least, a substantial minority) of people would actually agree if presented with the arguments in a calm, coherent manner. But this seems not to be allowed.

    3. John Wright

      If a foreign power did the same thing to the USA would we view it innocuously as a “stupid waste”?

      The Iraq war was an ethical/moral fail as there was NO urgency to rush into it and no immediate threat to USA well-being from Iraq.

      The USA congress did not even pass the Levin amendment, which would have required UN approval of the action.

      I doubt if the rest of the world, or Iraqis who lost relatives, view the Iraq War simply as “a stupid waste”.

    4. everyday joe

      Throwing out dinner is a waste.. I would use a different word to describe destruction of millions of lives.

  2. Rod

    Outside of my old home place in NE Ohio the US Gov maintains an Arsenal established in WW2. It employed thousands. During VN it was humming and many a local built a middle class life from warware made there. It constantly reminded me of my probable future.
    Mothballed in the late 70’s it was maintained by a fraction of prior employees(cut the grass-fix the roofs). Pretty quiet overall.
    I return to maintain the farm several times a year now since I own my life again, and can always count on those familiar C130s to fly over in early afternoon for my viewing pleasure. Generally flying back over about dusk or evening. 3 at a time–sometimes 2 or more groups–that familiar USAF grey, but sometimes pale white or all black. Daily without fail and a little too high to catch the tiny registration #s with my binocs.
    Employment at the Arsenal remains as it was when mothballed and no one knows anyone assembling anything there anymore though many are aware of the air traffic.
    Of my generation many ask “ok–where’s my cut of the war economy I’m paying for”. Sure is a different MIC from back in the day.
    And of course a great excerpt from Chomsky again.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Its an interesting question – they used to talk about ‘Military Keynesianism’, how military spending was a way for the US government to provide employment in run down areas, and allow financial transfers to poorer southern states. This was long seen as a positive economic benefit of the huge military budget, and to a certain extent it was a justifiable argument.

      But, as in so much of the economy, a combination of corruption, robotisation and the internationalisation of the sector means it is much less useful for this. Yes, every State has its little chunk of the F-35 to build, and thats probably not a bad thing (even if the motivation is to ensure Washington votes), but it does seem that the supposed economic ‘benefits’ of a large military are getting less and less. It used to be said that Prussia was ‘not a country with an army, but an army with a country’, it seems the US is going that way too.

      1. Higgs Boson

        It seems odd to me that many of the same companies in the war machine would also benefit from federal government largesse in other fabulously expensive, high-tech endeavors such as a serious space program, a national railway and infrastructure program, etc.

        Why aren’t we doing it? Does it really come down to the only way to convince people to spend the money is by constantly dangling the boogeyman in their faces?

        1. RMO

          All those options have also been proven to result in much more benefit to the economy than military spending. Military spending has just about the worst return on the dollar in terms of economic stimulus and spin off technologies of any government spending.

  3. Paul Tioxon

    Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, CARE packages were the American response to a destabilized world after WWII. Started first as a cooperative of American Remittances to Europe, to keep Europe from going over the edge at the brink of famine. War torn Europe with starving, fleeing refugees not unlike Syria today, were sent CARE packages of basic foodstuffs. Hard to imagine, unless you had been in combat there and saw the devastation. The cooperative of many member contributors has expanded into an international agency, but still cooperatively based that also includes development aid in the form of public sanitation and pure water supplies among many forms of help.

    This and other helpful types of direct contact with the people of the world is what America was known for. The drawing down of the military spending for a standing army and navy immediately after WWII did not ramp up until well into the Korean War, which caught the American military more flat footed than ready.

    Even with the passage of the National Security Act in 1947 under Truman, there were no massive line items in the Federal budget for the Department of Defense. Americans were sick and tired of war and conservatives of both parties were not about to welcome anymore Federal powers like the wartime muscle Washington DC flexed with impunity upon citizens and businesses alike. Price and wage controls, rationing and Federal policing of any infractions were too much. It would require a hate machine of behemoth proportions to get the US Government where it is today with the size and scope of its global military mission. Once CARE packages and the Peace Corps were the hallmarks of an idealistic American vision of one world under a peaceful banner of the United Nations. Care and Peace are now denigrated in that pathetic meme of invoking “Kumbaya” as the retarded mindset of witless fools. We have become like the enemies we’ve hated, and we need to unlearn hatred as a national pastime.

  4. Felix_47

    A succinct and brilliant analysis. We went to Iraq and Afghanistan. I was part of the invading force twice. As I would be in the FOB or in the field I would idly calculate that we could have simply written a check for several hundred thousand dollars per capita and given them all green cards…..but after almost a year in Afghanistan I decided the better strategy would be to just give the women green cards and twice the cash so they could buy a nice piece of California real estate. Let the men fight it out and determine their destiny. We had the civil war…..they need to do the same. Our moronic president and MIC invaded these countries so we really are the ones that should absorb the refugees. The US has no culture to speak of and the US is a land of recent arrivals. We have no problem absorbing and integrating immigrants…..but northern Europe…..what a disaster….we will not only have managed to destroy what culture might have existed in the mid east…..we have destroyed the societies of northern Europe. The US should take all the refugees. But filling farm villages in Bavaria with 500 inhabitants with 2500 young male refugees…..insanity. These are not refugees….these are young men who are pulled by a western life style. Ultimately as bad as our invasions have been the bigger story is that even had there been no invasion TV and modern communications and their insane birth rate would have created the same refugee problem sooner or later. Chomsky is right about war….but I wonder if he has thought about the insane birth rate… a polygamous society where the underclass men get no women and the rich men get everything……from what I saw female education is simply not going to happen in Afghanistan, at least. Afghan men seem to like the system just the way it is. And they are happy exporting the young men who are poor and dissatisfied to Berlin or Hamburg.

  5. Eric Blood Axe

    Thinking about it, a few days ago, I wondered why the rule of “Habeus Corpus”, was not in the US constitution.

    1. Fiver

      While a long-time admirer of Chomsky, I have to part ways on important parts of the narrative presented pertaining to the Middle East/War on Terror/Regime Change. For one thing, my version sees George Bush as a rather tragically set up dupe, not the driver of any of it. I think it destroyed him as much as Vietnam did Johnson. I’ve believed for many years now the alternate narrative that better conforms to all the facts features much more calculated and cold-blooded roles for particular powerful interests driving policy in the US – Israel and oil. Not something the mainstream is much interested in hearing about. But the reason I comment is to attempt to spike this particular argument, because it’s to me a good example of how even the very astute can be led astray:

      ‘Their goal is to “draw the West as deeply and actively as possible into the quagmire” and “to perpetually engage and enervate the United States and the West in a series of prolonged overseas ventures” in which they will undermine their own societies, expend their resources, and increase the level of violence, setting off the dynamic that Polk reviews.’

      Who has ever begged the most powerful force in existence to come and beat the entire home team to a bloody pulp on its own turf? It says a lot about how we think that we could think such a transparently losing proposition as attacking the US in order to get it to kill as many of the fighters and their people as possible was the strategy of bin Laden or anyone else on the ‘them’ side. You might imagine China or Russia or even India engaged in some long-term strategic effort to cause the US to spend too much money, etc. somewhere. But they would be acting through proxies, not lobbing a few missiles to get something started. The idea of Al Qaeda, or ISIS or any of those groups ‘winning’ anything this way is ridiculous – their countries are destroyed. They are unlikely ever to recover. By 2030 we already know the severe droughts and water shortages will be more than large areas from North Africa through to Pakistan/Afghanistan, even parts of India, are going to be able to handle. The entire world has now been propagandized to view Arabs/Muslims as crazies undeserving of real assistance on the scale with the budget that ought to be the very least done to compensate a dozen countries for this genocidal violence – as opposed to the tragic farce of US corporate cronyism that took place in the faux re-construction of Iraq. If the US and West do not end this colossal stupidity soon, the entire Muslim world, over a billion people, will be ruined, just ruined.

      1. Skippy

        Concur Fiver….

        The ME has been run like an open air abu ghraib prison with a VIP lounge and attendant staff for a long time…

  6. Sound of the Suburbs

    The war on terror continually creates more terrorists.

    Accidentally bombed innocents tend to ensure all their close friends and family become radicalized.

    I suppose it just increases exponentially until everyone is a terrorist and then it can stop.

    A ponzi scheme.

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