Response to Chomsky II

I look hard but fail to see a moral or logical compass in Chomsky’s fast and loose recital of dates and deaths. In the end, his argument reduces to two basic principles. If someone other than the United States commits mass murder they did so with American encouragement, and so the guilt is ultimately Washington’s. Or they did it in response to American actions, which either exonerates them or in some way mitigates their crime.

The second principle is that intervention to stop mass murder is wrong — particularly if the only powers with the economic and military strength for effective intervention, i.e. the “imperialist” powers, are behind it.

I am well aware of the dangers of humanitarian intervention as a doctrine. It was I, after all, who recorded the comment of a UN legal officer at the time of the Kurdish crisis post-Desert Storm, that the only legal precedent for “humanitarian intervention” was Hitler’s invocation of the plight of Sudeten Germans.

However, the Axworthy Commission, whose consideration of the issue laid the groundwork for the Responsibility to Protect principle adopted at the 2005 UN General Assembly, considered those dangers and recommended a set of tests to avert politically expedient abuses of the principle — which, incidentally, clearly cut the legs off Blair’s retrospective attempt to justify the Iraqi invasion as humanitarian intervention.

Like surgery, humanitarian intervention is only to be used as a last resort, but it is occasionally beneficial. I agree with Chomsky’s comment to David Barsamian in Class Warfare: “I don’t think you can give a general principle about when the use of military force is legitimate. It depends on what the alternatives are. So there are circumstances in which maybe that’s just the least bad of the available circumstances. You just have to look at things on a case-by-case basis. There are some general principles one can adhere to, but they don’t lead to specific conclusions for every conceivable case.” But the professor doesn’t seem to agree with himself. In this context, Chomsky is a political Seventh Day Adventist, opposed to military intervention in absolute dogmatic terms. Such attachment to state sovereignty is touching for him and his acolytes — but it suggests that their appeals to traditions of left internationalism are spurious at best and disingenuous at worst.

In Chomsky’s Alice in Wonderland world, causality has been reversed: NATO intervenes to stop massacres and is accused of precipitating them. By the same looking-glass logic, my agreement with the UN General Assembly that the international community has a responsibility to prevent mass murders such as those perpetrated in East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, and Rwanda, puts “blood on my hands” — and, according to at least one Chomskyite acolyte, makes me an “apologist for mass murder.”

For a sense of Chomsky’s own relaxed attitude about such mass murders, one just has to look at his breathtaking comments about Kosovo: “Up until the US/NATO bombing March 24th, there had been, according to NATO, 2,000 people killed on all sides, and a couple of hundred thousand refugees. Well, that’s bad, that’s a humanitarian crisis, but unfortunately it’s the kind you can find all over the world.” “Shit happens” seems to be Chomsky’s motto to excuse his insouciance about other people’s suffering — if they had the misfortune to be killed by an inappropriate enemy.

Chomsky has a neo-imperialist position of his own, disdaining the views of the victims. That is why in Pristina there are streets named after Clinton and Blair, but you would probably have to go to Belgrade to find a Chomsky Boulevard.

Apologizing for Milosevic’s crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo, Chomsky pontificates that “much more shocking are Williams’ continued efforts to deny U.S.-UK crimes in East Timor.” Since he so often refers me to his writings, I take the liberty of referring him to mine, where I have regularly raised the question of U.S. involvement both at the United Nations and elsewhere. In contrast to Chomsky, however, at no point did I assume that the crimes of the United States, whether in East Timor or in Cambodia, in any way excused or mitigated the crimes of the Indonesian military or the Khmer Rouge.

In his cynical employment of the tragedy of East Timor against international action to stop Milosevic, Chomsky disdains the views of East Timorese leader Jose Ramos-Horta, whom I frequently interviewed over the years of the Timorese struggle and who, in his politically impure concern for humanity, was at the time calling for intervention both in Kosovo and in his own country, precisely to redress the actions of previous American interventions.

This leads neatly to Chomsky’s accusation that I do not understand “the difference between ‘perpetrate’ and ‘precipitate.’” He really should quote General Wesley Clark less selectively. The general considered that he had good reason to believe that Milosevic was going to kill more Kosovars whatever the response, and wanted to stop him.

More to the point, Chomsky is once again evading the issue. A linguist should know better. I can indeed tell the difference between perpetrating and precipitating. His use of “precipitating” in this context is an outstanding example of the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc: after this, so because of it. Hence, all the atrocities that followed the bombing are to be attributed to the bombing. Once again, he is faulty both in logic and in fact.

As Human Rights Watch reported about Serbian government actions in 1998, before the NATO attacks:

Some of the worst atrocities to date occurred in late September, as the government’s offensive was coming to an end. On September 26, eighteen members of an extended family, mostly women, children, and elderly, were killed near the village of Donje Obrinje by men believed to be with the Serbian special police. Many of the victims had been shot in the head and showed signs of bodily mutilation. On the same day, thirteen ethnic Albanian men were executed in the nearby village of Golubovac by government forces…

The government offensive was an apparent attempt to crush civilian support for the rebels. Government forces attacked civilians, systematically destroyed towns, and forced thousands of people to flee their homes. One attack in August near Senik killed seventeen civilians who were hiding in the woods. The police were seen looting homes, destroying already abandoned villages, burning crops, and killing farm animals.

The majority of those killed and injured were civilians. At least 300,000 people were displaced, many of them women and children now living without shelter in the mountains and woods. In October, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified an estimated 35,000 of the displaced as particularly at risk of exposure to the elements. Most were too afraid to return to their homes due to the continued police presence.

And since Chomsky is so fond of the testimony of military men, perhaps he should refer to the testimony of General Naumann about the meeting he and Clark had with Milosevic when they were delivering the NATO ultimatum, and the latter looked forward to a “final solution” for the Kosovars, invoking the 1946 Drenica massacres, where, he obliging explained, “We got them all together and we shot them.”

Equally unsustainably, and one might add, pointlessly, Chomsky avers that “the crimes in East Timor — carried out with decisive U,S,-UK support throughout — were vastly greater than anything charged in Bosnia, coming as close to authentic genocide as anything in the modern period.”

While the professor blithely elides time to shape his polemic, the estimate total number of deaths in East Timor resulting from actions of the Indonesian army and its militia proxies in 1999 was 1,400 — around one tenth of Milosevic’s butcher’s bill in Kosovo the same year.

As for comparing East Timor and Bosnia, the truth and reconciliation commission in East Timor calculated that approximately 18,600 civilians were killed or disappeared between 1974 and 1999, 70% of them at the hands of the Indonesians and their surrogates. Additionally, at least 84,200 people died from hunger or disease resulting from the Indonesian occupation. The figure may be as high as 183,000.

In Bosnia at least 39,000 civilians were killed or disappeared between 1991 and 1995, 86% of them at the hands of the Serb forces. Additionally, over 57,000 soldiers died as a result of Milosevic’s ambitions. These figures do not take into account people who died indirectly, of hunger or disease, as a result of the conflict.

The numbers cannot meaningfully be called “vastly” different, but the numbers do not affect the moral issue at stake. Mass murder is wrong — whoever commits it and regardless of the relative size. Those East Timorese did not die to make a rhetorical rod for ivory-tower polemicists to beat other victims. In Chomsky’s ghoulish calculus, East Timor was worse than the Balkans, so failure to act and indeed even encouragement in the one precludes anyone acting to stop the other. This is a complete non sequitur.

Chomsky says that “it would have been outlandish” to raise that question of intervention in East Timor, and I did not do so.” In fact, he did, in The New Military Humanism, where he complains that “no call has been heard from the New Humanists for withdrawal of Indonesian military forces or for sending a meaningful UN observer force.” Indeed, he is doubly inaccurate, since there were many such calls, in response to which the Australians — with a fairly dire record of their own in East Timor — did intervene.

When I say that Clinton’s role in East Timor deserves some “some grudging credit,” Chomsky upgrades this measured assessment to unqualified “praise” for Clinton’s termination of U.S. participation in the aggression and atrocities. He continues, “By Williams’ logic, he should praise Russia for intervening in Afghanistan by withdrawing its troops in 1989.” Well, yes, one does “praise” — or at least acknowledge something positive about — governments for doing the right thing eventually, even Clinton, whose reluctance to intervene in Rwanda and Bosnia caused untold suffering and whose public renunciation of ground force intervention in Kosovo at the beginning of the crisis did so much to hearten Milosevic. And yet Chomsky ignores my criticism of the bombing campaign as counterproductive, a function of Clinton’s unwillingness to risk U.S. troops.

Chomsky persistently evades the issue of the direct responsibility of the regime in Belgrade for carrying out the massacres in Kosovo. In fact, he also evades the core issue that motivated the framers of the Responsibility to Protect: When faced with a recidivist regime massacring civilians, what is the appropriate response of the international community? The Genocide Convention, and indeed arguably the Apartheid Convention, both created a duty, a responsibility, for signatories to act, but they clearly were not enough (not least, admittedly, because of Anglo-American complicity in South Africa).

In my original article, I gave Chomsky credit for admitting — as so many of his acolytes have refused to do — Milosevic’s murderous nature. But he still has not suggested how Milosevic’s crimes might have been stopped, or indeed whether they should have been. Perhaps Chomsky imagines that he can evade his own responsibility with such Pilatean hand-washing. But every time he refuses to answer the question, his hands would in Macbeth’s words “rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”

Such a burden of responsibility kept Macbeth awake at night. I hope that Chomsky loses some sleep over it occasionally.

Senior Foreign Policy In Focus analyst Ian Williams is a journalist and author. Much of his work can be found on his blog, Deadline Pundit.