Crisis in the Balkans
excerpted from the book
The Rule of Force in World Affairs
by Noam chomsky
South End Press, 2000, paper
Though international norms are not rigidly determined, there is
a measure of agreement on general guidelines. In the post-World
War II period, these norms are partially codified in the UN Charter,
International Court of Justice decisions, and various conventions
and treaties., The US regards itself as exempt from these conditions
To mention another illustration of contemporary relevance, when
Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 it was ordered to withdraw
at once by the UN Security Council, but to no avail. The reasons
were explained in his 1978 memoirs by UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick
The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and
worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that
the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures
it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward
with no inconsiderable success.
He goes on to report that within two months some 60,000 people
had been killed. The numbers reached about 200,000 within a few
years, thanks to increasing military support from the US, joined
by Britain as atrocities peaked in 1978. Their support continued
through 1999, as Kopassus commandoes, armed and trained by the
US, organized "Operation Clean Sweep" from January,
killing 3,000 to 5,000 people by August, according to credible
Church sources, and later expelling 750,000 people-85 percent
of the population-and virtually destroying the country.
US support for Indonesian aggression and slaughter was almost
reflexive. The murderous and corrupt General Suharto was "our
kind of guy," the Clinton administration explained, as he
had been ever since he supervised a Rwanda-style massacre in 1965
that elicited unrestrained euphoria in the US. So he remained,
while compiling one of the worst human rights records of the modern
... Saddam Hussein, was also supported through his worst atrocities,
changing status only when he disobeyed (or misunderstood) orders.
There is a long series of similar illustrations: Trujillo, Mobutu,
Marcos, Duvalier, Noriega, and many others. Crimes are not of
great consequence; disobedience is.
Rendering the UN "utterly ineffective" has been routine
procedure since the organization fell out of control with decolonization.
One index is Security Council vetoes, covering a wide range of
issues: from the 1960s, the US has been far in the lead, Britain
second, France a distant third. General Assembly votes are similar.
The more general principle is that if an international organization
does not serve the interests that govern US policy, there is little
reason to allow it to survive.
The reasons for dismissing international norms were elaborated
by the Reagan administration when the World Court was considering
Nicaragua's charges against the US. Secretary of State George
Shultz derided those who advocate "utopian, legalistic means
like outside mediation, the United Nations, and the World Court,
while ignoring the power element of the equation." State
Department legal advisor Abraham Sofaer explained that most of
the world cannot "be counted on to share our view,"
and the "majority often opposes the United States on important
international questions." Accordingly, we must "reserve
to ourselves the power to determine" how we will act and
which matters fall "essentially within the domestic jurisdiction
of the United States, as determined by the United States"-in
this case, the actions that the Court condemned as the "unlawful
use of force" against Nicaragua.
The Court called on Washington to desist and pay substantial
reparations, also ruling that all aid to the mercenary forces
attacking Nicaragua was military, not humanitarian. Accordingly,
the Court was dismissed as a "hostile forum" (New York
Times) that had discredited itself by condemning the US, which
reacted by escalating the war and dismissing the call for reparations.
The US then vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling on
all states to observe international law, and voted in virtual
isolation against similar General Assembly resolutions. All of
this considered so insignificant that it was barely reported just
as the official reactions have been ignored. Aid was called "humanitarian"
until the US victory.
The rogue state doctrine remained in force when the Democrats
returned to the White House. President Clinton informed the United
Nations in 1993 that the US will act "multilaterally when
possible, but unilaterally when necessary," a position reiterated
a year later by UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright and in 1999 by
Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who declared that the US is
committed to "unilateral use of military power" to defend
vital interests, which include "ensuring uninhibited access
to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources,"
and indeed anything that Washington might determine to be thin
its "domestic jurisdiction."
The human toll is too vast to try to calculate, but for rogue
states with tremendous power, crimes do not matter. They are eliminated
from history or transmuted into benign intent that sometimes goes
awry. Thus, at the outer limits of admissible critique, the war
against South Vietnam, then all of Indochina, began with "blundering
efforts to do good," though "by 1969" it had become
clear "that the intervention had been a disastrous mistake"
because the US "could not impose a solution except at a price
too costly to itself." Robert McNamara's apology for the
war was addressed to Americans, and was either condemned as treachery
(by hawks) or considered highly meritorious and courageous (by
doves): If millions of dead litter the ruins of the countries
devastated by our assault, and still die from unexploded ordnance
and the lingering effects of chemical warfare, that is not our
concem, and calls for no apology, let alone reparations or war
Quite the contrary. The US is hailed as the leader of the
"enlightened states" that are entitled to resort to
violence as they see fit. In the Clinton years its foreign policy
has ascended to a "noble phase" with a "saintly
glow" (according to the New York Times), as America is "at
the height of its glory," with a record unsullied by international
crimes, only a few of which have been mentioned.
Rogue states that are internally free-and the US is at the
outer limits in this respect-must rely on the willingness of the
educated classes to produce accolades and to tolerate or deny
The British used chemical weapons in their 1919 intervention
in North Russia against the Bolsheviks, with great success, according
to the British command. As Secretary of State at the War Office
in 1919, Winston Churchill was enthusiastic about the prospects
of "using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes"-Kurds
and Afghans-and authorized the RAF Middle East command to use
chemical weapons "against recalcitrant Arabs as [an] experiment,"
dismissing objections by the India office as "unreasonable"
and deploring the "squeamishness about the use of gas":
"We cannot in any circumstances acquiesce in the non-utilization
of any weapons which are available to procure a speedy termination
of the disorder which prevails on the frontier," he explained;
chemical weapons are merely "the application of western science
to modern warfare."
The Kennedy administration pioneered the massive use of chemical
weapons against civilians as it launched its attack against South
Vietnam in 1961-62. There has been much rightful concern about
the effects on US soldiers, but not the incomparably worse effects
on civilians. Here, at least. In an Israeli mass-circulation daily,
the respected journalist Amnon Kapeliouk reported on his 1988
visit to Vietnam, where he found that "thousands of Vietnamese
still die from the effects of American chemical warfare,"
citing estimates of one-quarter of a million victims in South
Vietnam and describing the "terrifying" scenes in hospitals
in the South, where children were dying of cancer and hideous
birth deformities. It was South Vietnam that was targeted for
chemical warfare, not the North, where these consequences are
not found, he reports. There is also substantial evidence of US
use of biological weapons against Cuba, reported as minor news
in 1977, and at worst only a small cotinuing US terror.
These precedents aside, the US and UK are now engaged in a
deadly form of biological warfare in Iraq. The destruction of
infrastructure and banning of imports to repair it has caused
disease, malnutrition, and early death on a huge scale, including
more than 500,000 children, according to UNICEF investigations-an
average of 5,000 children dying each month. In a bitter condemnation
of the sanctions on January 20, 1998, 54 Catholic bishops quoted
the archbishop of the southern region of Iraq, who reports that
"epidemics rage, taking away infants and the sick by the
thousands," while "those children who survive disease
succumb to malnutrition." The bishops' statement, reported
in full in Stanley Heller's journal The Struggle, received scant
mention in the press. The US and Britain have taken the lead in
blocking aid programs-for example, delaying approval for ambulances
on the grounds that they could be used to transport troops, and
barring insecticides for preventing the spread of disease and
spare parts for sanitation systems.
Crisis in the Balkans
Every year thousands of people, mostly children and poor farmers,
are killed in the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos, the scene of
the heaviest bombing of civilian targets in history, it appears,
and arguably the most cruel: Washington's furious assault on a
poor peasant society had little to do with its wars in the region.
The worst period was after 1968, when Washington was compelled
to undertake negotiations (under popular and business pressure),
ending the regular bombardment of North Vietnam. Kissinger and
Nixon then shifted the planes to the task of bombarding Laos and
The deaths are from "bombies," tiny anti-personnel
weapons, far worse than land mines: they are designed specifically
to kill and maim, and have no effect on trucks, buildings, etc.
The Plain was saturated with hundreds of millions of these criminal
devices, which have a failureto-explode rate of 20 30 percent,
according to the manufacturer, Honeywell. The numbers suggest
either remarkably poor quality control or a rational policy of
murdering civilians by delayed action. This was only a fraction
of the technology deployed, which also included advanced missiles
to penetrate caves where families sought shelter. Current annual
casualties from "bombies" are estimated from hundreds
a year to "an annual nationwide casualty rate of 20,000,"
more than half of them deaths, according to the veteran Asia reporter
Barry Wain of the, Wall Street Journal-in its Asia edition. A
conservative estimate, then, is that the crisis this year is approximately
comparable to Kosovo, though deaths are far more highly concentrated
among children-over half, according to studies reported by the
Mennonite Central Committee, which has been working in Laos since
1977 to alleviate the continuing atrocities.
There have been efforts to publicize and deal with the humanitarian
catastrophe. A British-based Mine Advisory Group (MAG) is trying
to remove the lethal objects, but the US is "conspicuously
missing from the handful of western organizations that have followed
MAG," the British press reports, though it has finally agreed
to train some Laotian civilians. The British press also reports,
with some annoyance, the allegation of MAG specialists that the
US refuses to provide them with "render harmless procedures"
that would make their work "a lot quicker and a lot safer."
These remain a state secret, as does the whole affair in the United
States. The Bangkok press reports a very similar situation in
Cambodia, particularly the eastern region, where US bombardment
after early 1969 was most intense.
In this case, the US reaction is (II): do nothing. And the
reaction of the media and commentators is to keep silent, following
the norms under which the war against Laos was designated a "secret
war"-meaning well-known, but suppressed, as was also in the
case of Cambodia from March 1969. The level of self-censorship
was extraordinary then, as is ~ the current phase.
The. contempt of the world's leading power for the framework of
world order has become so extreme that there is little left to
discuss. While the Reaganites broke new ground, under Clinton
the defiance of world order has become so extreme as to be of
concern even to hawkish policy analysts. In the leading establishment
journal Foreign A~airs, Samuel Huntington warns that Washington
is treading a dangerous course. In the eyes of much of the world-probably
most of the world, he suggests- the US is "becoming the rogue
superpower," considered "the single greatest external
threat to their societies." Realist "international relations
theory," he argues, predicts that coalitions may arise to
counterbalance the rogue superpower. On pragmatic grounds, then,
the stance should be reconsidered. Americans who prefer a different
image of their society might have other grounds for concern over
these tendencies, but they are probably of little concern to planners,
with their narrower focus and immersion in ideology