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Edward Said and Noam Chomsky Speak on NATO Bombings of Yugoslavia

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NATO has confirmed that it is checking reports that it killed 50 civilians in southwestern Kosovo when it attacked Yugoslavia overnight with the heaviest raids of its seven-week bombing campaign. Yugoslav news reports say that at least 50 civilians were killed and more than 50 wounded during the night when eight NATO cluster bombs slammed into the village of Korisa, about six miles from the town of Prizden.

As the mainstream media in the U.S. continues to cover the war in Yugoslavia through the voices of military experts, NATO spokespeople and U.S. government officials, we bring you voices of dissent that have been effectively censored everywhere else. Today we hear from two of America’s most respected political dissidents: Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. They spoke last month on a panel on Middle East politics at Columbia University.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

NATO said today it’s checking reports that 50 civilians are killed in southwestern Kosovo when it hit Yugoslavia overnight with the heaviest raids since it began bombing on March 24th. Serb media in the Kosovan capital of Pristina said at least 50 civilians were killed and more than 50 wounded during the night, when NATO planes dropped cluster bombs on the village of Korisa, about six miles northeast of Prizden. Many of the victims are reported to be women, children and the elderly.

As the mainstream media in the United States continues to cover the war in Yugoslavia through the voices of retired generals, NATO spokespeople and U.S. government and military officials, today we bring you voices of dissent, that have been effectively censored everywhere else. We’ll turn to two of America’s leading dissidents: Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. They spoke, giving major addresses at Columbia University in New York City on the state of the Middle East. Afterwards, they had a dialogue about the bombing of Yugoslavia.

Professor Noam Chomsky is a world-renowned linguist, scholar and political analyst. Among his books, Manufacturing Consent and Profit Over People. Professor Edward Said teaches English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He’s also written over a dozen books, including Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. He was a member of the Palestine Liberation Council, until he quit, between 1977 and 1991. We begin with professor Edward Said.

EDWARD SAID: I don’t want to give a whole thing on the current situation in Yugoslavia, but a number of things need to be said. In the first place, obviously — I mean, I tried to emphasize this in my talk — I mean, I see the evils of ethnic cleansing and forced dispossession which is taking place, by the forces of Serbia under Milosevic, and there’s obviously a parallel there between what happened to Palestinians in 1948.

And I certainly want also to add, since you talked about Iraq, that there can be no brief at all for what Saddam Hussein has wrought on the people of Iraq and the neighborhood. But one should remember that these are not things that happened out of context, and just suddenly, we suddenly discovered the monstrosity of these regimes. Saddam was supported very, very methodically during the ’80s, especially during the Iran-Iraq War, by the United States and the European powers. And Milosevic was always involved. I mean, the Dayton Accord made a point of really sort of sidelining the Bosnians and dealing with Milosevic.


EDWARD SAID: And the Kosovars, of course.

So, the policy now of bombing has to be seen in the context of U.S. moves elsewhere. That is to say, at the same time that this action is taking place — a kind of clean war, safe war, you know, no U.S. pilots hurt, etc., with these smart bombs and so on and so forth, devastation of a country — there is a war being waged by a NATO ally, Turkey, against the Kurds. Forty-six thousand Kurds have been killed. And not a word has been said about this by the United States, which simply tolerates it.

I think these false dichotomies — either you’re with — as it used to be said during the Gulf War, either you’re for fascism or you’re for imperialism, and you have to be for imperialism, because it’s always slightly better than fascism. I mean, fascism being such… These are the kind of false dichotomies we’re placed into at the current moment. And I think that the net result, again, without any particular plan, without any notion of what’s going to be done afterwards, given the history of other refugees in the last 50 years, it seems unlikely that this action on the part of NATO and the United States is going to produce anything except more destruction and more fragmentation and dispossession. And probably, at the end, Clinton will walk away and say he had a success.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, I’ll be brief.

I think the first thing we ought to do when facing this — it’s a difficult and complicated issue, but the first thing we at least ought to agree is to be honest. If we don’t want to be honest, then let’s just stop the discussion. If we’re willing to be honest, we see instantly that it cannot possibly be an operation resulting from humanitarian concerns. I mean, that’s just trivial.

Let’s take the one example that Edward mentioned, and which, incidentally, I disagree with him. He said that the U.S. ignored the Turkish atrocities in Kurdistan, which is absolutely untrue, as he agrees, I’m sure. The U.S. worked as hard as it could to escalate those atrocities. In fact, 19 — and this is not — you know, this is not ancient history. I mean, atrocities in southeastern Turkey, which are well beyond Kosovo, peaked in 1994. It was the peak year of atrocities. It was also the peak year of U.S. provision of weapons under Clinton to Turkey. That included jet planes, napalm, anti-personnel weapons, tanks, all of which were used. In fact, Turkey became the biggest importer of weapons in the world, thanks to the huge supply of weapons that Clinton was offering them to consummate a destruction and massacre, which unfortunately is even — is well beyond what’s happening in Kosovo, or had happened. Remember, 2,000 people were killed there last year, according to NATO. And, in fact, Clinton even had to evade congressional restrictions. Human rights groups found that U.S. jets were being used illegally to bomb Kurds. And the humanitarian Clinton had to find ways of evading those restrictions to allow the jet planes to keep going to keep bombing Kurds. So, that’s just one example of many. There’s no possibility that this is a humanitarian operation.

That leaves us with the question whether you should carry it out. OK, it’s a separate question. So now you look and see. Where were we on March 24th, when the bombing started? Well, there, according to NATO, had been 2,000 people killed in the past year, as Serbians responded brutally to KLA attacks on police stations and so on. And so, you might ask yourself how the United States would respond to attacks on police stations in New York by a guerrilla group being supported by, say, Libya and based across the border. Well, just put that aside. But in any event, the response was brutal: Couple thousand people were killed, a few hundred thousand refugees. On March 24th, the way the situation stood was — well, actually, you learned something interesting in The New York Times yesterday, hidden down at the bottom of a column, the place where it’s usually useful to begin reading. It turns out — I didn’t know this before — that the Serbian Parliament had called for — before the bombing, had called for U.N. forces to be in Kosovo as observers, whereas the U.S. was insisting on NATO forces. Well, that’s consistent with U.S. contempt for and hatred for the United Nations or any other international institution. But it does put a rather different cast on the situation. There were clearly negotiating opportunities and options that could be pursued.

The U.S. picked one option. It was an option which was guaranteed, practically, to make the situation far worse. I won’t express my opinion. Let me just quote the U.S. NATO commander. On March 26th, Wesley Clark, two days after the bombing started, he said, in his words, it was “entirely predictable” that as a result of the bombing there would be a vast escalation of Serbian atrocities on the ground. Well, you know, “entirely predictable” is too strong; the world isn’t that simple. Nothing is entirely predictable. But it was certainly pretty obvious that they were going to react somehow. And they were going to react where they have strength. Well, they don’t have strength in the air; you know, they have strength on the ground. So, they were going to react the way they did, you know, by sharply increasing the attacks, and so on. If you look at the number of refugees, the U.N. had registered zero refugees in Albania and Macedonia. There were some, but they weren’t registered by the U.N., as of March 26th, in fact. That’s when the refugee flow started. It’s after the bombing.

The bombing — the effects of the bombing, rather predictably — not “entirely predictably,” as the NATO general stated — rather predictably, were to sharply increase the damage to the populations, the harm to the populations, very severely, all populations. Other effects were to wipe out a very promising and courageous democratic movement in Belgrade, which was the best hope for getting rid of this gangster Milosevic, with whom we’d been dealing. It’s having — I mean, everyone rallies around the flag, you know, just the way we would do if New York started getting bombed. So that’s gone, at least for the moment, maybe forever. The very harsh effects on the surrounding regions.

There is yet another attack on the system of international law and world order. Well, like if you’re Saddam Hussein, you don’t take this very seriously. But maybe not everybody accepts the standards of Saddam Hussein. Maybe there’s some people who think that we ought to have some sort of regime of international order which provides at least some support for the weak, doesn’t provide any support for the strong — they don’t need it. But it provides some — the restrictions against the use of force provides some protection for the weak. OK, we have another blow against that. In fact, across the board, it’s a disaster. It’s a human disaster. In fact — so, forgetting even the possibility that this had humanitarian motives, which, of course, it didn’t, we have to ask what it meant. Well, that’s approximately what it meant. Doesn’t look very much in doubt, and it looks as if there were alternatives. And there still are alternatives, as there always are.

In fact, let me just put the whole thing at a kind of mundane level. Like, suppose you walk out in the street this evening, and you see a crime being committed. You know, somebody is robbing someone else. Well, you have three choices. One choice is to try to stop it, you know, like maybe call 911 or something. Another choice is to do nothing. A third choice is to pick up an assault rifle and kill them both and kill the bystanders at the same time, you know. Well, suppose you do that, and somebody says, “Well, you know, why did you do that?” And I said, “Look, I couldn’t stand by and doing nothing, you know.” I mean, is that a response? You know? Why — I mean, if you can think of nothing that wouldn’t do harm, then do nothing, you know. And the same is true magnified in international affairs, apart from the fact that there were things that could have been done.

EDWARD SAID: But I want to add one other thing, if I may. That is, at the same time that this war is going on, the United States is continuing to bomb Iraq — again, on the bottom pages of The New York Times. And I think one of the things, one of the demonstrations, I think, behind the action in Yugoslavia is a kind of projection of U.S. power and the assertion that the U.S. can fight regional wars, more than one, maybe two, three, four at a time. And interestingly, one of your favorite columnists, Friedman, Tom Friedman, the other day, was saying in The New York Times that it’s a sort of repetition of the — of some of the tactics used during the Indochinese episode — that is to say, to appear as irrational as possible. And he was advocating the unreasonable use of force, in another words, just for the sake of the force, not to achieve any particular results, but to show the people who is boss. And it’s — I think that mentality is very much part of it.

And second point to be made is the continued attack upon the United Nations. That is to say, the United Nations is useful in Iraq. You know, they can use resolutions that the United States pushed through — continued arrears in dues, the continued scorn for attempts at peacemaking, and so on and so forth, as in Rwanda 1994. But, essentially, the United Nations is a contemptible body. And as most people in the Senate and the House boast, they’ve never been out of the United States, don’t even have a passport. So why should we care about the world body that gives — that tries to take sovereignty away from the United Nations? I think that’s also part of it, that the United — I mean, this is the assertion of world number one without much interest at all in any possible outcome that anyone can possibly see is anything but bleak.

NOAM CHOMSKY: If I can just — I don’t know. I guess we should leave it to you. But let me just say that on this matter of looking irrational, Thomas Friedman didn’t make it up. That’s the official U.S. policy.

EDWARD SAID: It is, yeah.

NOAM CHOMSKY: There is a National Defense — I forget the name of it — in 1995, which proposed that — it’s been partially declassified — which proposed that the United States should maintain an irrational posture. We should look like a dangerous, irrational state, because that will frighten people, and we should use the nuclear arsenal that way. The more uncertain they are, the more power we have.

Now, there’s actually an Orwellian phrase for this, which is repeated by Clinton and his little puppy dog Tony Blair and Madeleine Albright and everyone else. The phrase is: “We have to preserve the credibility of NATO.” That’s the main argument that’s given. Well, try to decode that. I mean, are they worried about the credibility of Denmark? You know? Or of Italy? You know, no. “Credibility of NATO” means credibility of the United States. Now, what does “credibility” mean? Well, credibility means, like what any Mafia don would understand, if somebody doesn’t pay, you know, what they’re supposed to do in a grocery store, the don has to maintain credibility. Other people have to understand that you don’t do this, you know. Credibility means be frightened of the enforcer. So, and that — once you carry out the translation, I think you can see what’s going on, and I think it’s exactly what Edward said. That’s a major motivation. You have to preserve the credibility the enforcer. And, I mean, if you do it by being irrational and violent and destructive, well, you know, that’s where the cookie crumbles.

EDWARD SAID: I have a tiny footnote to this, is — to bring it back to the Middle East, I mean, it’s the rationale for Israeli policy in Lebanon.


EDWARD SAID: Yeah, you know, where you occupy a strip of land, you say this is to protect yourself, so you occupy more land inside another sovereign state. And then you mete out punishment through mercenaries, but certainly it’s by, you know, the clean bombing, you know, the use of aircraft, and so on and so forth. And then, of course, when you meet resistance, you call them “terrorists.” And it’s — what’s interesting is how the U.S. press has followed along with this logic, so that whenever they talk about the Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon fighting the Israeli occupation, they always refer to it as “Iran-supported terrorist Hezbollah” and so on and so forth.

But the footnote I wanted actually to bring attention to was around the — well, just before the middle of March. It must have been around the 11th or 12th of March. The Israelis invaded further north. They took another area in a town called Arnun, just north of the security zone in southern Lebanon. And they surrounded it. They took the village, just kicked out most of the inhabitants, and put barbed wire around it. A couple of days later, there were big demonstrations in Beirut, and a bunch of students came down from Beirut by bus to Arnun in South Lebanon to this newly occupied town north of the Israeli zone, but which was just recently occupied by the Israelis. And they stood in front of the barbed wire, warned off. The Israelis shot rifles in the air, warned that the wires were full of electricity, that there were land mines, and so on and so forth. And then, you know, as it happens in situations of crowds and so on, a couple of them, of the Lebanese students, attacked the barbed wire, which, of course, was not wired — there were no land mines — and liberated the town. And the Israeli soldiers, with all their arms, ran away. It’s a small episode in a generally not very distinguished history of conflict, but it does show, at times, that the bully can be confronted.

AMY GOODMAN: Professors Edward Said of Columbia University and Noam Chomsky of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaking just a few weeks ago at Columbia University. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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