avatar
Dancing With The Devil


Some things you thought you could count on: the prevailing westerlies, temperatures according to the season…Forget it. Washington now controls the weather. That chill you’ve felt in your bones despite the calendar is a cold wind blowing east to west. It is the breath of war. It carries the message, “Prepare for war.” Yes, the Bush administration really intends an unprovoked invasion of Iraq. Yes, our government has actually come to talk openly of plans for overthrowing foreign governments, and to do so without stirring immediate public outrage, without sounding alarms in the media, alarms in the universities. But the fire burns, nonetheless, with or without the alarms.

85 years ago, D.H. Lawrence philosophized: “If people lived without accepting lies, they would ripen like apples,” a metaphor for living full, satisfying lives. Lawrence, of course, wasn’t writing about foreign policy, but about the Victorian values that still bound English attitudes and behaviors. He saw the ropes cutting the skin; he saw the blood. Military and foreign policy planners pushing for an invasion of Iraq are no less aware of the ropes that bind American minds today, and they are intent on tightening the bonds.

If the devil really is the great deceiver, then the Bush administration is one of his most fervent disciples. Consider four major lies of the present public relations campaign. First, the lie of clear and present danger. Condoleeza Rice stated it in typical fairy tale imagery on August 15th, “If Saddam Hussein is left in power doing the things he’s doing now, he’ll wreak havoc again. This is a threat that will emerge in a very great way. History is littered with cases where inaction has come back” to haunt people. The message here is quite clear: “An enormous threat looms on the horizon. As we go out to meet the challenge, don’t hamper our efforts to disarm it.” It is a code language written in condensed symbols. It is not meant to be considered thoughtfully; it is meant to evoke an habituated response.

But what are the “things” Saddam Hussein is doing, and what is the “havoc” he wrought and where? Perhaps Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld can shed light on this. He told reporters recently it was “safe to say” that Iraq has developed mobile biological weapons laboratories. “They move around a lot of things to avoid detection or, if not detection, at least to avoid having them attacked.” He gave no evidence of this, but we are well beyond the point where we hold our policymakers to proof. What evidence there is actually runs counter to the argument that the Iraqi government has WMD capabilities. What we know, according to Scott Ritter, is that UNSCOM destroyed 90%-95% of Iraq’s WMD from 1991-1998. What we know is that the IAEA declared Iraq free of nuclear weapons programs. UN weapons inspectors left Iraq in Dec. of 1998, in advance of the furious 4-day bombing campaign known as Desert Fox. We also know that former Secretary Of Defense William Cohen said in briefing the incoming Bush administration on January 10, 2001 “Iraq poses no threat to its neighbors.” We know the Iraqi conventional military capacity is the smallest in the region. And we know that while it may take only a bathtub and a chemistry set to create certain biological or chemical agents, it entails a great deal more than that to arm weaponry with those agents and deliver them effectively to a target. Instead of threatening Iraq with a massive military invasion based on the speculation that it is developing WMD, the Bush administration should be doing everything in its power to ensure that weapons inspectors return. This includes negotiating openly in good faith, which brings us to the second lie.

The second lie is two-part, and it runs something like this: a) time and again in the years after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US has done everything it could to negotiate in good faith with Iraq; b) the Iraqi government cannot be trusted. Isn’t this what the sanctions regime and weapons inspections have been all about, an honest and painstaking attempt to hold Iraq accountable to reasonable and essential UN resolutions, for the benefit of humanity? This is the message, but the reality is something else altogether. Even a mere glance at the official record shows that the US has repeatedly blocked efforts by other security council members to ease or lift the sanctions, efforts aimed at relieving widespread Iraqi civilian suffering. It was the presence of US spies on the UN weapons inspection team that contributed to the collapse in 1998 of the weapons inspection process, not long before its likely completion. And it is the US which violates Iraqi sovereignty daily by flying war planes over two-thirds of its countryside, without any legal authority, bombing it frequently, and often hurting or killing civilians.

“Iraq is our enemy,” we are told repeatedly, understanding without being told that one does not negotiate with the enemy. Saddam Hussein, we are told, is merciless, diabolical, a maniacal dictator who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Over and over we hear: “Look what he did to his own people! He gassed them!” Thus sweep dialogue and negotiation off the table. How can you have dialogue without trust, and who can trust such a villain? Three years ago, after returning from a trip to Iraq, I spoke to a group in Healdsburg, California. When I introduced my topic, a woman in the audience clarified rhetorically “Iraq: that’s enemy territory, isn’t it?” She had gotten the message. On August 23rd , at a weekly curbside vigil where we held a sign that asked, “Do You Want the US to Attack Iraq?” a 15 year old quipped in response “Yeah, let vengeance have the day. Get them back for what they did to us!” He’d gotten the message, too.

We know how to relate to an enemy: we defend ourselves, and if necessary we attack. What would we do if we didn’t have any enemies? This is more than a fanciful question, because the “enemy” we call Saddam Hussein is to an important degree an American creation—not only in the literal sense, that the US helped him into power and has provided him with military intelligence and weaponry, but more importantly the popular image of Saddam Hussein as a “menace,” a “bogeyman” has been portrayed so starkly and held before us so steadfastly that it is fixed securely in the popular American consciousness.

Whether Saddam Hussein would attack the U.S. if given the chance, however, is a matter of speculation. What we do know is that he never has. We also know if we are listening to people like Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck that the Government of Iraq (GOI) has cooperated fully in the implementation of the Oil-For-Food program—this despite the humiliation of having to ask for permission whenever they want to buy something, despite the frustration of having to go through a cumbersome foreign bureaucracy just to spend their own money, and despite having to pay the salaries and living expenses of this imposed bureaucracy. They have not redirected funds, they have not misused goods, and they have not intentionally allowed humanitarian items to sit, unused, while people suffered. We also know, if we have read a 1998 UN Food and Agriculture (FAO) report that the GOI established a national system of food rationing after the Gulf War. It did so in the face of sudden and catastrophic food shortages brought on by the international economic embargo. By doing so, it averted catastrophe for its people. According to the FAO, “widespread starvation was avoided through an effective public rationing system, which provided minimum quantities of food to the population.” It was this same system upon which the UN piggybacked in implementing the Oil-For-Food program. The UN has used this system as a model for developing countries in other parts of the world.

This of course isn’t to suggest that the GOI is blameless or without responsibility. And certainly the brutal repression of ethnic minority groups is a state crime, a gross violation of human rights. What this crime tells us most clearly, however, is that the GOI is a military dictatorship; it maintains power by silencing opposition. When threatened, it may react with any violent means at its disposal. But it doesn’t mean in and of itself that the GOI cannot and will not negotiate in good faith with the US and with the UN Security Council.

If anyone in this equation has a right to consider anyone an enemy, surely the GOI has the right to consider the U.S. its enemy. It was U.S. military strength after all that devastated the Iraqi civilian infrastructure in the Gulf War, in what any sane person can see was a criminal use of overwhelming force. Indeed, war itself was unnecessary, and might well have been avoided if the U.S. hadn’t thwarted regional diplomatic efforts and ignored Saddam Hussein’s “serious” offer to withdraw peacefully from Kuwait, facts that were not lost on the Iraqi government at the time and certainly have not been forgotten.

A third lie is that the desire to overthrow the Iraqi regime is rooted in humanitarian zeal. It is, as George Bush said last week, “in the interest of the world.” The fact that most of the international community – including every Arab nation, Russia, China, Germany, and France – has expressed opposition to such a move has left him undeterred in his belief. A few weeks ago, Donald Rumsfeld committed an even grosser misrepresentation when he argued that toppling the Iraqi regime is in the best interest of the Iraqi people. “Twelve years ago, Iraqi people were among the best educated and most highly skilled in the region. Today, millions of the most educated and skilled Iraqis have left the country, fleeing this regime.” Take out this regime, he said, and these people will gladly return to play a major role in “rebuilding Iraq.” Another constellation of fairy tale images to feed the popular imagination: the big friendly woodcutter disposing of the wolfish tyrant; refugees returning, full of gratitude, to renew their homeland.

Which brings us to the fourth lie, the most egregious: the failure to speak honestly about the likely impact on civilian life of a massive invasion. What Rumsfeld in his fanciful assertion didn’t mention was the brutal air assault that is likely to precede any ground invasion, once again no doubt targeting essential civilian infrastructure such as the electrical grid; the predictably bloody ground war itself; and the foreign occupation that will follow it. Can we really bend our minds to believe that this is a necessary first step in rebuilding Iraq? If the U.S. wants to help Iraq rebuild, it can start by lifting economic sanctions, and rather than threatening further damage it can commit sizable donations toward repairing Iraq’s devastated infrastructure. Other countries will surely follow this lead.

Donald Rumsfeld also seems to have forgotten that Saddam Hussein was in power 12 years ago when Iraq boasted such a large class of well-educated, highly-trained citizens. And he is wrong about the reason for the departure of Iraqi skilled workers and intellectuals, most of whom fled not the repressive regime but the oppressive sanctions which have destroyed the Iraqi economy. I doubt they feel any depth of gratitude to the United States, the architect, builder, and enforcer of the sanctions. Gratitude is engendered by free and open relations, fair dealings, and respect. Despite all that our government has done, it may not yet be too late for dialogue and negotiation. The Government of Iraq may yet be willing to give the U.S. another chance

Leave a comment