Attacking Iraq

A year ago this month we witnessed a horrendous terrorist attack. Sadly, we may soon witness another, should the Bush administration go ahead with its plans to bomb Iraq. Of course, it is misleading to say that the tragedy is in the works, when there already has been one occurring in the country over the past decade, during which it has endured bombings that have destroyed vital infrastructure such as sanitation and water-treatment facilities, as well as sanctions that have denied the country basic medical supplies, all leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, all under the initiative of successive United States and United Kingdom governments.

That this devastated nation is under the rule of a brutal, murderous dictator that should be deposed is a given; that it should be bombed to achieve this end, causing even more death and destruction to its people is the question that should be considered. Those in favour of attack argue that the intended target “is an outlaw regime, is in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, is embarked upon a program of weapons of mass destruction and is a threat to peace and stability, both in the Middle East and, because of the risk of proliferation of these weapons, in other parts of the globe” (former Secretary of State James Baker, New York Times, August 25). We’re warned that “armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror and the 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.” (Vice-President Dick Cheney, August 24)

Insofar as these charges serve to justify an attack, then they require careful consideration, both of their correspondence to reality and of the authenticity of the principles upon which they’re based. Let’s consider the first. For one, as John Ritter, former chief weapons inspector of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) on Iraq, writes in Newsday (July 30), “to date the Bush administration has been unable – or unwilling – to back up its rhetoric concerning the Iraqi threat with any substantive facts.”

The lack of public evidence conforms to Ritter’s own impressions of Iraq’s biochemical weapons capabilities. By late-1998, the inspection team “could account for [the elimination of] 90 percent to 95 percent of Iraq’s proscribed weaponry”, he points out. The remaining 5-10% could well have been been accounted for, Ritter notes, but “continued manipulation of the UNSCOM inspection process by the United States” thwarted his team’s efforts to do so, “[leading] to a fabricated crisis that had nothing to do with legitimate disarmament.” Indeed, after “ordering UNSCOM inspectors out of Iraq” in December 1998, the US-UK launched a three-day military attack (Operation Desert Fox), in which “the majority of the targets bombed were derived from the unique access the UNSCOM inspectors had enjoyed in Iraq, and had more to do with the security of Saddam Hussein than weapons of mass destruction. Largely because of this, Iraq has to date refused to allow inspectors back to work.” (my emphasis)

Although Ritter doesn’t completely rule out the potential danger of the remaining 5-10% that was unable to be accounted for, he has expressed his doubts that it constitutes any sort of threat. “If Iraq was producing weapons today, we would have definitive proof,” he told a Boston audience on July 23rd, noting that it would be next to impossible to produce such weapons under constant U.S. and British surveillance, particularly following UNSCOM’s successful dismantling of the country’s weapons-manufacturing facilities.

In addition, should Saddam even have such weapons of mass destruction, there is little reason to think that he would use them. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “As has been obvious all along, and pointed out repeatedly by strategic analysts, if anyone wants to cause immense damage in the US, including weapons of mass destruction, they are highly unlikely to launch a missile attack, thus guaranteeing their immediate destruction. There are innumerable easier ways that are basically unstoppable,” as the attacks of September 11 showed.

After much initial hype, the other pretext – that of an Iraqi link to Al-Quaeda, has now been quietly laid to rest. Thus after many weeks of prominent attention given to a supposed meeting between Mohammed Atta, alleged ringleader of the 9/11 highjackers and a high-ranking Iraqi official in the Czech republic, the business section of the New York Times reported on October 26, 2001 that “Czech officials said they had been asked by Washington to comb their records to determine whether Mr. Atta met with an Iraqi diplomat or agent here. They said they had told the United States they found no evidence of any such meeting. … Petr Necas, chairman of the parliamentary defense committee, said, ‘I haven’t seen any direct evidence that Mr. Atta met any Iraqi agent’.”

As such, all that we really do know for certain is that “There is no question that the Iraqi military is a pale reflection of the Iraqi force that rushed into Kuwait in August 1990,” as Michael R. Gordon reports in the New York Times (August 26). “Because of the UN embargo, the Iraqis have not been able to buy new weapons”, while their army of 350,000 soldiers “is about a third of its size at the start of the Gulf War.”

What this disparity can tell us about the current danger of Iraq’s forces can be understood well by considering its achievements even when at its strongest, pre-Gulf War capacity. This is an issue that we need not look too far to understand, given the fact that “The United States provided the Government of Iraq with ‘dual use’ licensed materials which assisted in the development of Iraqi chemical, biological, and missile- system programs, including: chemical warfare agent precursors; chemical warfare agent production facility plans and technical drawings (provided as pesticide production facility plans); chemical warhead filling equipment; biological warfare related materials; missile fabrication equipment; and, missile-system guidance equipment“, to quote the conclusions of a 1994 report conducted by the United States Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs (“U.S. Chemical and Biological Warfare-Related Dual Use Exports to Iraq and their Possible Impact on the Health Consequences of the Persian Gulf War”).

As a front-page article in the New York Times recently informed, the “covert American program during the Reagan administration provided critical battle assistance” (as it also happened during the administration of Reagan’s successor, George Bush Sr., although that fact is omitted) was carried out to aid Saddam during his war with Iran, as the US “decided it was imperative that Iran be thwarted, so it could not overrun the important oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf” upon which the US relied for the wealth accrued from its dominance of the region’s energy sources through client dictatorial Arab regimes, its prime motivation for Middle East policy since it took over ownership from the British. Not that the concern applied to the case at hand, since it was Saddam that attacked first, with US encouragement, before, ostensibly, Iran took the opportunity to “overrun” the nearby oil-producing US client states to which it paled in military force. The assistance continued even after “Iraq did turn its chemical weapons against the Kurdish population of northern Iraq”, as we also read, although with no further comment, thus omitting the amount of casualties estimated to be between 2500 to 5000 in the town of Halabja alone in March 1988. (Patrick E. Tyler, “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas”, NYT, August 17).

As the record shows, this story is nothing new — dissident literature has been reporting it for years, and the US Senate committee validated the claim over eight years ago. Its appearance now, fourteen years after the worst of the atrocities in Halabja, need only be seen as a testament to the fanaticism of the Bush administration that a normally apologetic and obedient newspaper like the New York Times, never one to show much objection to bombing defenceless civilian populations, less they carry any practical “costs”, thinks so little of their government’s planned use of force to publish a story that they’ve been hiding for fourteen years.

The record also bears considerably on the second issue at hand, that being the principle upon which the justifications for attack are supposedly based. One way to determine the merits of one’s professed principle is to consider whether one has adhered to it. As Chomsky also points out, “As a matter of logic, principles cannot be selectively upheld… We do not admire Saddam Hussein as a man of principle when he condemns Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, nor do his laments over human rights abuses in the occupied territories encourage our hopes for a kinder, gentler world.” The same can be said for George W. Bush and any of his predecessors, who have used weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and chemical, on millions of innocent civilians, and have funded, trained, and supplied countless other brutal regimes in their atrocities against millions more, a number that includes tens of thousands of victims of Saddam Hussein, as W.’s father could tell him.

We need also note that the charges are coming from the country with by far the largest nuclear and chemical weaponry in the world, and one that has frustrated several diplomatic efforts at solving the crisis in Iraq, an approach it has employed widely in the Middle East. It is one of two countries that has voted in the United Nations against a resolution condemning international terrorism (the objectionable content being that “nothing in the present resolution could in any way prejudice the right the right to self-determination, freedom, and independence, as derived from the Charter of the United Nations, of people forcibly deprived of that right… particularly peoples under racist and colonial regimes and foreign occupation”), and is the only country to veto a Security Council Resolution calling on all states to observe international law, which was understood to be an implicit response to the United States’ reaction to the condemnation it received from the International Court of Justice for “unlawful use of force” for its terrorist war against Nicaragua, to which it was also ordered to pay massive reparations. The U.S. had dismissed the ruling and proceeded to escalate the assault.

In short, there is no question that the United States “is an outlaw regime, is in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, is embarked upon a program of weapons of mass destruction and is a threat to peace and stability, both in the Middle East and, because of the risk of proliferation of these weapons, in other parts of the globe.”

Yet we hear no calls that we should be bombing Washington, among many other capitals. The idea of asking to investigate the White House or search any of its weapons or chemical facilities all across the world is one that couldn’t even enter our imaginations. We wouldn’t dare attempt to ask the United Nations to do so because that would be easily blocked at once; correspondingly, we won’t be able to do anything if the US avoids international law and attacks Iraq without going through the UN Security Council, as it has often done, as it has been so easy to do. These are the expected features of a world run by those with the most means of violence at their disposal.

Of course, total hypocrisy does not completely disqualify one from being able to take action on a professed principle. But it can, at minimum, place a great burden of proof on those that do not follow what they preach, particularly when the consequences of action can be serious, as in the case at hand. The case for bombing Iraq doesn’t even near approach meeting this burden. There are still diplomatic options that can be pursued, although they are no doubt complicated by the US government’s previous disruptions of the inspections program, as discussed above. Iraq’s recent offer, immediately rejected, to invite an investigative US Congressional delegation into the country, shows at least a stated willingness to explore diplomatic alternatives that could avoid further bombings and deaths. Of course, the attitudes of the weak have been demonstrated to be a non-factor in solving disputes with stronger foes, as this case can attest to: a much more promising diplomatic track occurred before the start of the Gulf War, when Iraq made offers to withdraw from Kuwait in return for minor border adjustments and access to a disputed oil field along their shared borders. It also called for a guarantee from the Security Council for a just resolution to other Middle East issues, notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an offer that was also rejected at once.

Again, the United States can avoid violence and confrontation. If the record is any indication, it is clear that the prospects of it doing so lie largely in the hands of the Western public, whose leadership has shown only the strictest adherence to rejectionism and violence. The fate of many numbers of Iraqis – not to mention others, ourselves certainly included, given the possible long-term consequences, could very well depend on our ability to curb this tendency.

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