An Interview with William Blum

John Elmer: CBS has reported that barely five hours after the attacks on Washington and New York, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is quoted shorthand by aides saying, in reference to Saddam Hussein, “Judge whether good enough to hit S.H. at same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden]. Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” (“Plan for Iraq Attack Began on 9/11”, CBS Washington, 4 September 2002) If it weren’t for September 11, would we be marching to war in Iraq today?

William Blum: They may have found another excuse; they have wanted to do this for some time. 9/11 gave them the excuse to do many things: Afghanistan, Iraq, the crackdown on civil liberties at home, the crackdown on the Freedom of Information Act–all kinds of things, at home and abroad. They would have found some other pretext if it wasn’t for 9/11–and that isn’t even a pretext in the case of Iraq. With Afghanistan, on the surface at least, it could be used as a pretext because there was some connection there, supposedly, but with Iraq there is no connection whatsoever with 9/11.

Elmer: Do you suggest the war in Afghanistan would have happened at some time or another regardless of September 11?

Blum: It might have. The US government had been negotiating with the Taliban up until six months or so before 9/11 to arrange for the safeguarding of oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan and Pakistan into the Indian Ocean. US oil companies were involved in that–and that was not getting as far as the US-side wanted it to, so they were looking for some other way to alter the government’s position in Afghanistan. So the motive was always there, again, they just needed the pretext–and 9/11 is a pretext that has served many functions.

Elmer: Canadian speechwriter for President Bush David Frum wrote in his memoir, The Right Man, that he came up with the “axis of evil” while reading Franklin Roosevelt’s reaction to Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. Frum’s “radical memo” to Bush drew on the parallels between the Toyko-Rome-Berlin axis powers of WWII and the menace of terror organizations like al Qaeda allied with the so-called terror-states today: Iraq-Iran-North Korea (Frum, “My Radical Memo on Iraq”, National Post, 8 Jan 2003). So as Pearl Harbor was to the larger threat of the Nazi’s in WWII, so is al Qaeda to the larger threat of Iraq -the one nation on earth most like the axis powers of WWII, according to Frum. Is there any possible way that this can be taken seriously?

Blum: If you’re a speechwriter for George Bush it can be taken very seriously, yes. I can see from his point of view, it fits nicely into what he wanted to find. But a rational human being would have a hard time finding any credence in all that; a rational human being would ask for some evidence [of the link between Iraq and al Qaeda]–as the world has been asking for evidence of it for a full year now. We have been asking and there has been no evidence forthcoming. So I don’t think that by now anybody believes it.

Elmer: Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Policy casts it as inevitable that two-thirds of the US oil supply will have to be imported by 2020. Iraq has the world’s second largest oil reserves. Just how significant is oil in the conflict in Iraq?

Blum: It’s a sine qua non–it is not the only reason, but it certainly is one that has to be there, without that the other reasons might not be important enough. The oil has other aspects to it as well: The official currency of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) for all oil transactions has been the Dollar. A year and a half ago or so, Iraq switched to the Euro, which apparently upset the US powers-that-be greatly, and they’re afraid that OPEC may change to the Euro officially. From what I’ve read from economists, that would be a great blow to the US financially, and it would have to be stopped by the US–that’s very important for them. If they were in charge of Iraq as they have openly admitted is their plan, they could easily switch Iraq’s decision, and I think Saudi Arabia and the others would be in a very tenuous position if they wanted to buck the United States on this issue. They would have to go along with keeping the Dollar as the official currency.

Elmer: The Pentagon has recently confirmed that the war plan is called “Shock & Awe” and involves 3000 missiles in 48-hours, 800 of them Cruise Missiles, in order to provide the “Hiroshima effect”–psychologically destroying the enemies will to fight. One Pentagon official called the plan ‘unprecedented’. In the face of the lengthy docket of “shock and awe” saturation bombings of, say, Southeast Asia or the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, for example, is it really unprecedented?

Blum: Well, in terms of firepower, it could be [as powerful]. They certainly have the means to top what they did in Afghanistan or Iraq [in 1991], or Serbia or even Hiroshima. They have the means to double Hiroshima or ten times that–it’s up to them how much they’re going to use. Simply in terms of tonnage of bombs or explosive power, however that is measured, it could be unprecedented–but this is not really an important issue: whether it is equal to Hiroshima or twice Hiroshima, it’s still going to be total devastation for the people of Iraq, and I think this report was issued as one more way of frightening the people in Iraq and frightening their government. It’s psychological warfare.

Elmer: After the first Gulf War, George Herbert Walker Bush said “the specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula” (U.S. Armed Forces Radio March 2, 1991). What effect has the Vietnam Syndrome–the idea of a war carrying on too long allowing the solidification of popular opposition–played in the American Empire’s tactics of expansion?

Blum: Well one of the main effects of that is in the media. The Pentagon has learned that if you show the American public too many pictures of dead peasants and children, if the pictures are too bloody and too gruesome day after day, you will certainly help to build up antagonism to the war. Ever since Vietnam they have slowly but surely limited the media access to the battlefield -it gets less and less with each war. It is all staged now; they allow the media to see only what they want them to see. That is one effect of Vietnam.

As far of the length of the war, they bombed Serbia, day and night, for 78 days–that’s a long time. They will bomb until they get a certain effect, either surrender or total devastation. They prefer to do it quickly, but not too quickly because they always have a number of experiments to carry out. These wars are done partly to carry out experiments with the newest weapons, and so they have to have time for that as well. The US will take as long as it wants. The Empire will do what it wants. You and I can just follow behind and comment about this and that, but the Empire will do what it wants.

Elmer: Regarding the plan for urban warfare within the metropolis of Baghdad (pop. 5 million), is this a potential disaster for the American propaganda effort, considering it will be much easier for journalists to gain access to the cities, compared to the isolation of Desert Storm in 1991, where many of the massacres took place in the desert, like the so-called Highway of Death between Basra and Baghdad?

Blum: Normally what they would do is just bomb the cities until all possible resistance was snuffed out and then they would send in forces on the ground, who would then meet the minimum resistance. But they now want to at the same time avoid the torching of the oil wells–and other things like maybe chemical and biological weapons–which will pollute the air and harm the American soldiers. So to prevent this, I have heard that they may introduce ground forces even before the bombing has run its course–but who can say what is going to happen. But it won’t be as simple as in the past.

Elmer: On the topic of the United Nations, after the US attacked Grenada in 1983 (pop. 101,000) despite overwhelming UN-disapproval, President Ronald Reagan said, “One hundred nations in the UN have not agreed with us on just about everything that’s come before them, where we’re involved, and it didn’t upset my breakfast at all.” What role does the UN play in the plans of the American Empire?

Blum: Even Empires, even dictators want to be loved, want to appear to be legitimate. General Pinochet in Chile was in power 17 years as a dictator, but he longed to be loved as well. He held a referendum certain that he would win, and he lost and was forced to leave office. The US Empire can do what it wants from a military point of view, but it also wants to appear to be somewhat legitimate. The US uses the UN for that purpose, if it can. It has been done pretty much that way in the past and it is making the attempt now. The Empire thought it could go ahead and do what it wanted in Iraq with UN support, and the whole world’s support, but it was surprised by a huge outburst of opposition–so much so that it was forced to play the UN game, and so far it hasn’t won that game. What will happen will be fascinating to observe, but I can’t predict it.

Elmer: Do you think then that the second resolution the US is presenting on [Monday February 24, 2003] will have any impact on the conflict, or will they just go it alone if they can’t get Security Council approval?

Blum: Well they’ve said they will [go it alone]. I just read an interview with [defense advisor] Richard Perle speaking about France. He said, even if they veto our resolution we will still invade Iraq. But this has been going back and forth for almost a year, and there is a lot of psychological warfare involved. They want to frighten Iraq, they want to appear as tough as can be, they refuse to admit any weakening of their resolve–it’s all show.

Elmer: Now speaking to the broader region of the Middle East, Israeli human rights groups like B’Tselem and several respected correspondents in the region–Justin Huggler of the Independent (UK) and Amira Hass of Ha’aretz have warned that Israel is stepping up military activities and land seizures in the Occupied Territories while the world’s media focuses on Iraq. Hass went so far as to say that an Iraqi missile attack on Israel or Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein could precipitate the mass expulsion of Palestinians (Hass: “Threat of Mass Expulsion” la Monde Diplomatique 19 Feb 2003, Huggler: “As the World Focuses on Iraq, The Bodies Pile Up in Gaza” Independent (UK) 22 Feb 2003). What do you think the impact of a war on Iraq will be for Palestinians?

Blum: There is a good chance of Israel using this as a pretext for so-called “transfer”, which is otherwise called ethnic cleansing–moving the Palestinians en masse to Jordan, to newly liberated Iraq, and who knows where else. They certainly want that, whether they can get away with it only time will tell. The war would be a good pretext, a good cover for that [expulsion of the Palestinian population].

Elmer: This interview is being conducted from Halifax, the most important naval port-city in Canada. On Monday [February 24, 2003] the first of two Canadian Naval destroyers are leaving for the Arabian Sea to provide “escort” and surveillance functions for billion dollar American aircraft carriers. What role does Canada play in the expansion of the American Empire?

Blum: It’s a fig leaf. The US government obviously doesn’t need anyone’s help to overwhelm anyone else in the world militarily, but it gets back to the need to be loved and the need to appear somewhat legitimate. For those purposes they do need the support of Canada and Britain and anyone who can offer it. It’s a fig leaf. In some cases, these nations offer a certain amount of military help which makes the war a bit easier for Washington, but that’s not vital; they could have taken out Iraq completely, a few months ago, without all this [troop] build up.

Elmer: You mentioned that the Empire does what it wants. On February 15th tens of millions of people worldwide rose up in united opposition to this war on Iraq. The next day, President Bush said that the protest affected him none, that it would be like shaping policy based on “a focus group”. Does this type of opposition–the largest ever–really have no discernible impact on policy?

Blum: Well it may not stop the war, but I tell you that if the US carries out the war in the face of worldwide opposition it may very well be the beginning of the end for the Empire. And I hope it is.

William Blum is the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Rogue State: a guide to the World’s Only Super Power. and West-Bloc Dissident: a Cold War Political Memoir. He can be reached at:

JON ELMER is a journalist in Halifax whose activism and writing against the war in Iraq has rendered his status as a student of philosophy at Dalhousie University little more than a formality of registration. He can be reached at:

This interview was originally aired on CKDU’s Guerrilla Radio in Halifax, Nova Scotia.