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U.S.-Iraq: Back from the brink?

(Spring 1998)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A DEAL BROKERED BY THE UNITED NATIONS headed off U.S. war plans against Iraq in February. But more than 30,000 U.S. troops remain on alert in the Persian GulF And the U.S. retains economic sanctions which have killed more than 1 million Iraqis in the past seven years. PAUL D’AMATO and LANCE SELFA review the U.S.-Iraq crisis and explain why the sanctions must go.

Why did the U.S. back off?

In February the U.S. was prepared to kill thousands of Iraqis in a bombing assault. But at the 11th hour, the Clinton administration backed down in the face of a deal brokered by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The Clinton administration didn’t want this outcome. In the face of the U.S. climbdown, experts predicted direct consequences for the U.S.’s self-proclaimed role as the world’s “indispensable nation.”

“Various countries are looking at U.S. leadership and the extent to which we are willing to lead,” said Paula Dobrianski of the Council on Foreign Affairs. “The way in which the situation in the Gulf was handled has diminished our standing. Consequently, countries are going to view it as open season on the U.S. and an opportunity to test our resolve.”

The administration was loathe to admit the obvious: its war drive collapsed in the face of opposition from its allies and from ordinary Americans. Annan’s deal merely allowed the U.S. to save face.

The U.S. climbdown also reflected the reality that it simply doesn’t know what to do about Iraq. For years, U.S. policymakers have made it clear that they want Saddam Hussein out and a more pliant pro-U.S. regime in. They have also made it perfectly clear that they want sections of the Iraqi military staff to replace Saddam Hussein rather than a popular uprising.

The problem is that since the 1991 war – when Bush calculated that a U.S. ground invasion of Iraq would be too costly politically in terms of support at home and in the Middle East – the U.S. has had no effective strategy for achieving its goals. The CIA’s attempts to build opposition inside Iraq have failed to oust Hussein. The sanctions – and the periodic bombings – are, in a way, a substitute for an invasion that the U.S. can’t launch. Even Clinton admitted back in February that a “limited” bombing campaign would be unable to achieve U.S. policy goals. So the U.S. finds itself caught between the need to step up the heat on Iraq and its inability to go all the way.

The U.S. double standard which forces Iraq to comply with every jot and tittle of UN resolutions while it abets Israel’s flouting of the UN and the “peace process” with the Palestinians enrages ordinary people in the Middle East. Even the wretched monarchies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – usually the most slavish U.S. backers in the region – criticized Clinton’s plans. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – probably the U.S.’s most important Arab ally and a supporter of the 1991 U.S.-led war against Iraq – repeatedly condemned Clinton’s plans to bomb Iraq. “We have to deal with public opinion in the Arab and Islamic world, and we are going to face a hell of a problem,” Mubarak told Britain’s Financial Times newspaper as the U.S. beat the war drums.

In Jordan, King Hussein ordered a state of emergency after protests against the U.S. war drive turned into riots against the regime. The protests in Jordan gave a foretaste of the regional firestorm the U.S. might have ignited if it had attacked Iraq.

The U.S. failure to muster support from its European allies, except Britain, showed the failure of its policy of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran. “Dual containment” – the policy of isolating Iran and Iraq, the Gulf’s two main powers, to keep them militarily and economically weak – ran headlong into the interests of the U.S.’s major allies.

For Iraq, “dual containment” has meant that the U.S. has insisted on maintaining sanctions that have killed well over half a million Iraqi children and kept Iraq’s economy close to the pre-industrial state in which allied bombing left it in 1991. It has also meant policing Iraq’s military and declaring and patrolling “no fly zones” in the north and south of Iraq. Towards Iran, the U.S. has maintained unremitting hostility, targeting it as the source of regional “terrorism.” The U.S. has intervened in international arenas to enforce a U.S.-led economic embargo that has infuriated its European allies.

Since accepting defeat in the Iran-Iraq war, Iran has mounted an effort to rebuild its economy and its military. The Iranian government has pursued a strategy of inviting foreign investment into Iran. But this Iranian government policy runs counter to U.S. efforts to strangle Iran. In 1995, the U.S. government intervened to stop a $300 million oil deal between the U.S. oil firm Conoco and Iran. In 1996, President Clinton signed a far-reaching Iran-Libya sanctions bill that punishes any corporation or country that invests in Iran’s petrochemical industry. Following the pattern of the Helms-Burton Act against Cuba, the U.S. reserves the right to deny access to U.S. markets for any firms which invest in Iran. The European Union ambassador to the U.S. called the bill “an extreme case of extraterritorial legislation.”

On the UN Security Council, Russia, France and China – all of which want to open up trade and investment with Iraq – opposed the American and British plan to attack Iraq. This made it hard for the U.S. to claim it was upholding the “will of the international community.” Annan’s mission to Iraq offered a way to paper over the deadlock in the Security Council.

There are general and specific reasons for the crackup of the 1991 Gulf War “coalition”. For instance, U.S.-allied Turkey wants to offer itself as a conduit for Iraqi oil to be processed and sold in the West. The European countries envision large trading opportunities in the region. Because they and Japan depend more heavily than the U.S. on oil exported from the Middle East, they prefer a less belligerent approach to the region than does the U.S.

France was the most vocal Western ally in criticizing the planned U.S. attack. Annan even stopped in Paris to consult with French President Jacques Chirac on his way to Baghdad. France opposed the U.S. because it wants to forge good relations with both Iraq and Iran. “[F]or France, Iraq and Iran remain central potential trading partners, particularly since America has squeezed the Gulf dry of its cash,” explained the French magazine Issues in 1996.

“Whether it is Total, the French oil giant, or major construction and military companies, the French lobby for improving relations with Iraq is big. In fact, the huge amounts of debt owed by Iraq to French companies makes opening up Iraq and releasing Iran even more attractive. Moreover, better relations with Iraq and Iran will certainly lead to a new card in France’s hand, French officials reckon.”

It is crucial to understand that the U.S. policy of “dual containment” is not simply about trying to suppress “rogue states” in the Persian Gulf. It is also about the U.S. establishing its claim to set Western policy for the Middle East and the world. The U.S. wants to be able to identify, name and discipline the anti-U.S. governments it dubs “rogue states.” If the U.S. can lay down this law for all Western allies, the U.S. will assume the unchallenged role of “globocop.”

While the U.S. was losing the support of its allies, the administration faced protest at home. The February 18 “town meeting” in Columbus, Ohio – at which antiwar activists made babbling fools of the administration’s top foreign policy officials – blew the lid off the war drive. It brought into the open doubts about the attack on Iraq. The Columbus event gave confidence to other antiwar voices to speak out. Within a two-week period, several thousand people demonstrated in cities across the U.S., including Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Austin, Texas.

At the Columbus meeting, one questioner asked Secretary of State Madaleine Albright why the U.S. wanted to attack dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein while it provides military and economic aid to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Albright sniffed that the questioner didn’t understand U.S. foreign policy. But he understood U.S. foreign policy quite well. Clinton’s advisers remained tongue-tied in Columbus because the stated aims for U.S. hostility to Iraq – Iraq’s hiding “weapons of mass destruction,” Iraq’s repression of its people and “aggression” against neighboring countries, among others – aren’t the U.S.’s real aims.

Iraq has become the stalking horse for U.S. imperialism – the justification for its military presence in the Gulf. Keeping Iraq in line is meant to show the world that the U.S. has the moral, political, and military right to police the Middle-East and the world in whatever way it sees fit. Establishing this “right” in the Middle East is crucial for the U.S., because the Middle East still holds over 50 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, and unhindered access to oil resources and profits has always been a top priority of the U.S. The Wall Street Journal’s George Melloan put the case succinctly in a February 10 op ed article: “Hitting Iraq’s weapon sites would be a useful warning to other states with ambitions to attain power and prestige…What happened to Saddam could happen to you, it would say.”

Sanctions against Iraq: A weapon of mass destruction

Annan’s February deal headed off an immediate U.S. attack on Iraq. But the U.S. nevertheless continues the quieter but even more deadly tool in its war against Iraq. The sanctions that the U.S. (under the auspices of the U.N.) imposed after it devastated Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War have now gone on for over seven years. The blockade has already killed an estimated 700,000 children alone – from lack of food, medicine and clean water. An estimated 5,750 continue to die each month, according to a recent Chicago Tribune article. This makes the sanctions even deadlier than the 1991 war, which killed approximately 200,000 people.

But the sanctions, says Secretary of Defense William Cohen, must remain in place until Iraq can prove it has eliminated all of its “weapons of mass destruction.” The Clinton administration has said that the sanctions are against Hussein’s regime, not against the Iraqi people. But blockades have rarely toppled a regime – Iraq has faced seven years of blockade, and if anything it has strengthened Hussein’s position. The truth is that the sanctions are against the Iraqi people. Iraqis are being made to pay a huge price for the right of the United States to set an example: any country that steps out of line will be devastated, including its children.

In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson called the economic blockade a “peaceful, quiet, lethal remedy” that “doesn’t take a single human life outside the country exposed to boycott.” The fact that atrocities are committed through a quiet blockade and slow starvation rather than a direct attack makes little difference to the outcome. A recent Chicago Tribune front-page story put it bluntly: “The long-term effect, in the view of United Nations humanitarian aid experts, is likely to be an entire generation of Iraqi children stunted in their physical and mental development” – that is, the ones that live.

The blockade came on the heels of the country’s devastation in the 1991 Gulf War. U.S. planes rained 88,500 tons of cluster bombs, fuel-air explosives and other ordnance on Iraq, destroying its power grid and water processing capabilities, and killing tens of thousands of people. The sanctions that followed have prevented Iraq from rebuilding much of this infrastructure. The problem isn’t just a food shortage. Other impacts of the sanctions are just as devastating:

The U.S. touts its support for a UN-sponsored food-for-oil deal that allows Iraq to sell $5.2 billion worth of oil every six months. But this was nothing more than a public-relations ploy to deflect criticism for the U.S. role in murdering over half a million children. Not only is the food-for-oil deal insufficient to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people, but the U.S. worked to disrupt and delay the 1996 $2 billion food-for-oil deal – after they spent five years opposing any agreement allowing Iraq to sell oil.

According to the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Denis Halliday, the new deal is little more than a Band-Aid. “There is a real prospect that oil for food will be considered sufficient now that the sums have been increased, and it is not,” said Halliday.

A large portion of the food-for-oil money doesn’t go to feed hungry Iraqis. One third of it is earmarked for “war reparations” for Kuwait and other countries in the Gulf. Another share goes to pay for UN administrative expenses to carry out the sanctions and the UNSCOM inspections in Iraq. The rest goes to buy food, medicine and other supplies.

Moreover, Iraq’s oil production system has deteriorated so much that it is capable of producing only $4 billion worth of oil at the most, according to Iraq’s oil minister, Amir Mohammed Rasheed. Iraq’s dilapidated equipment and severe shortages of spare parts as a result of the blockade mean that Iraq can produce only about 1.8 million barrels on most days – far less than the 3 million barrels needed to meet the food-for-oil target. Walid Khadduri, executive director of the Middle East Economic Survey, puts the figure even lower, saying that Iraq could produce at most 1.5 million barrels a day for a while if it pushed itself to the limit. Of this total, Iraq sells about 500,000 barrels domestically, and 100,000 to Jordan at a third of market price in order to keep the Iraqi-Jordanian border open. This leaves little to sell on the international market.

Five months into the first food-for-oil deal back in 1996, only 122 humanitarian contracts out of 217 had been approved, though Iraq had submitted more than 500. According to one UN official, “it seems that the U.S. is involved” in holding up aid to Iraq and “thought to be involved” in inflating the dollar value of U.S. and non-U.S. goods going into Iraq. “Our oil is out, but we have received nothing,” said one radiologist who is forced to cut x-ray film into four pieces to make the meager supply last longer.

U.S. and UN officials have called these food-for-oil deals “humanitarian.” They are nothing of the kind. It is not humanitarian to devastate a country with disease and hunger and then offer to alleviate some of the damage you have caused. It is not humanitarian to shoot someone and then offer them bandages. The deals, along with the UNSCOM inspections, are designed to make Iraq a virtual UN protectorate, dependent in its every move on the say-so of U.S. and UN officials.

As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a “CBS 60 Minutes” reporter in 1995, “the price” of half a million dead Iraqi children (the number of children that the sanctions had killed at that time), “we think, is worth it.” Thus Madeleine Albright establishes herself and the administration she represents as war criminals far more murderous than any Bosnian death-squad leader.

“My family in Iraq do not support the dictator Saddam Hussein,” Ahamid, an Iraqi dissident living in London told the British Socialist Review. “But they blame the West, and especially the U.S., for what is happening to ordinary Iraqis. The West armed Hussein in the first place and now they impose sanctions. The Western governments are hypocrites. The aim of sanctions is to destroy the Iraqi people – their future, their feelings and their education. We must not let this happen.”

Antiwar activists in the U.S must demand that the U.S. lift all sanctions on Iraq.

Will the UN deal hold?

NEARLY TWO months after the Annan deal, the UN’s chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, reported “virtually no progress” in verifying Iraqi destruction of major weapons systems. “If this is what Iraq intended by the [February] crisis, then, in a large measure, it could be said to have been successful,” Butler wrote in a report to the UN, according to a Reuters News Service report. “A major consequence of the four-month crisis authored by Iraq has been that, in contrast with the prior reporting period, virtually no progress in verifying disarmament has been able to be provided.”

“Iraq’s heightened policy of disarmament by declaration, no matter how vigorously pursued or stridently voiced, cannot remove the need for verification as the key means through which the credibility of its claim can be established.”

Butler’s blast came after two months of relatively uneventful inspections of eight Iraqi “presidential sites.” Butler’s report was virtually certain to close off any UN Security Council move to lift sanctions against Iraq. Did Butler’s harsh language signal a new Western campaign to whip up support for war against Iraq?

There’s no doubt the U.S. would seek whatever pretext it could get to launch a war like the one it planned for February. More than 30,000 U.S. troops remain on high alert in the Gulf region. They could be sent into action at any time. What’s more, if the UN-Iraq deal breaks down, the U.S. might win over its reluctant allies for military strikes against Iraq. Annan’s deal didn’t extinguish the possibility of war in the Middle East. It may have simply postponed war to a later time.

The Middle East is a region of interminable warfare and bloodshed because it has been carved up, its people suppressed, its lands invaded. The United States holds the greatest responsibility for this state of affairs. The U.S. has a long history of intervention in the region. Today, it spends upwards of $60 billion dollars a year to deploy troops and weaponry in the Gulf. It has also relied on brutal regimes – like Israel’s, Kuwait’s and Saudi Arabia’s – to do its dirty work there.

The combination of Western imperialism and its local agents have denied the mass of the local population the fruits of spectacular oil wealth. This in the end will cause U.S. imperialism to unravel in the Middle East. The accumulated bitterness of the oppressed and exploited peoples of the region has – and will – produce mass revolts against both imperialism and against the region’s tyrants. And the impact will be felt around the world.

Meanwhile, anti-war forces in the U.S. must work to get all U.S. and UN troops out of the region. And we need to be ready to organize protests and opposition if the U.S. tries to ratchet up war fever against Iraq in the future.

* * *

Appendix 1

U.S. Hypocrisy over Chemical Weapons

WHILE accuses Iraq of stockpiling chemical and biological (CB) weapons, the U.S. researches and develops biological and chemical weapons of its own. Not only does it possess a stockpile of over 30,000 tons of chemical weapons, such as VX gas bombs and Sarin Nerve gas – a legacy of a massive Second World War and Cold War CB arms buildup – but the U.S. continues to fund research in CB weapons at the sprawling Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. The military justifies its continued work with chemical and biological warfare as purely “defensive.”

This was the same justification that both the U.S. and Russia used for building up their respective nuclear, chemical and biological stockpiles during the Cold War. The logic of the arms race, whereby each powerful nation tries to outdo the other in its ability to deploy military might applies as much to chemical and biological weaponry as it does to all kinds of weaponry. The logic of imperialist rivalry is, “If we don’t develop these weapons, our rivals and potential rivals will get the better of us.” It is therefore impossible to separate the “defensive” and “offensive” when it comes to testing chemical and biological agents.

And the U.S. does not hold itself to the standards of weapons inspection it holds for Iraq. Here it uses the simple standard, “We can have weapons of mass destruction, but you can’t.” The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, for example, of which the U.S. is a signatory, allows a country to deny inspections at sites not on a list provided by the host country and to deny particular inspectors. The U.S. has used this proviso to deny Cuban and Iranian inspectors access to the U.S. Moreover, Congress has passed treaty legislation that allows the U.S. to deny inspections that “may pose a threat to the national security interests of the United States.” In other words, the U.S. can effectively deny inspection of any area that isn’t a “declared” weapons facility. The White House said recently in relation to a pending biological weapons convention that it would oppose “random visits.”

The argument that Iraq poses a threat with regard to its weaponry is a propaganda exercise to gain support for military action. The truth is that Iraq doesn’t pose any serious threat. Iraq – unlike the U.S. – has no missiles capable of delivering CB weapons efficiently, even if any exist in Iraq, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies. “Nobody in his right mind thinks [Saddam Hussein] has much of an arsenal,” said Leonard Cole, a Rutgers University professor who studies chemical and biological warfare. Cambridge University Professor Robert Neil echoed Cole’s views:

“To say that UN inspectors found ‘enough to have killed the world’s population several times over’ is equivalent to the statement that a man in his prime can produce a million sperm any day, therefore he can produce a million babies a day. The problem in both cases is that of delivery systems.”

By any measure, it is the United States that poses the greatest danger to the world’s people when it comes to producing, deploying and using “weapons of mass destruction.” It really does possess enough nuclear warheads – over 7,000 – to kill “the world’s population several times over,” and it is the only country ever to have used nuclear bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It dropped more “conventional weapons” on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War than all the tonnage dropped in the two world wars combined. And it dumped thousands of gallons of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange on Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, destroying half of Vietnam’s forests and jungles and poisoning millions of Vietnamese people and American soldiers.

Today, the U.S. is again prepared to deploy massive force – including dropping more bombs per day on Iraq in 1991 than in any war in world history – to assert its right to control the world’s key resources. And it will employ any propaganda device – from claiming to defend small nations to preventing “madmen” from deploying deadly weaponry – to justify its own war.


Appendix 2

How the US Helped Keep Hussein in Power

The following are excerpts from a transcript of a February 7, 1998 ABC special report from Peter Jennings entitled Showdown with Saddam. It shows clearly that, all rhetoric aside, the United States helped Saddam Hussein stay in power after the 1991 Gulf War.

PETER JENNINGS: …There was no doubt by the end of the war that millions of Iraqis wanted Saddam Hussein to go. But the Bush administration was unaware that Hussein’s opposition was organizing itself and actively preparing to rise up against him and take on the remnants of his defeated army. The leadership of the opposition wanted the United States to help. And so one of them, Jalal Talabani, flew to Washington.

JALAL TALABANI: I personally told them through our friend, Peter Galbraith, that we are planning for an uprising. And we have prepared the ground for it.

PETTER JENNINGS: Ambassador Peter Galbraith was then the staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

PETER GALBRAITH: On the day the war ended, I contacted the National Security Council on behalf of Talabani, the Kurdish leader, and asked if he couldn’t have an appointment, that he was planning the uprising. And he told me that they were planning the uprising. So it was critical information to impart. And I was angrily rebuffed.

PETER JENNINGS: ... [T]he Bush administration was taken by surprise when the Iraqi rebellion began. At first, it was very successful. As it reached the southern city of Karbala, loyal Iraqi troops were pinned down by the rebels. And very quickly, the rebellion spread across southern Iraq.

And within several days, Iraqi opposition forces in the north joined the insurrection. And they actually drove Saddam Hussein’s army out of the north altogether …

U.S. Intelligence reported that the rebellion had spread to 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. It looked as though Saddam Hussein might actually be brought down. His chief of military intelligence was general Wafik Samarii.

GEN. WAFIC SAMARII: The uprising almost succeeded. I will tell you a secret. At the very end, we had only two days of Klishnakov bullets left over in the warehouses of the Iraqi army. The situation was very, very dangerous.

AHMED CHALABI, PRESIDENT OF THE IRAQI NATIONAL CONGRESS: Saddam Hussein was rejected massively by the people. They did that, Iraq people did that, because they felt that the West and the – led by the United States, wanted to see Saddam finally go.

PETER JENNINGS: The United States did want Saddam Hussein to go, they just didn’t want the Iraqi people to take over. (Interviewing) And what did you think of it at the time?

GENERAL BRENT SCOWCROFT (National Security Adviser at the time in question): I, frankly, wished it hadn’t happened. I envisioned a postwar government being a military government.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What they were thinking was that some Kabali officers would overthrow Saddam in Baghdad and impose military rule on Iraq, and then we can go back to business as usual.

PETER JENNINGS: But the Bush administration had misjudged the generals. Instead of turning on Saddam, they turned on the Iraqi people, and they crushed the rebellion. Tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed. Many were rounded up and executed, their bodies thrown into mass graves. And the United States did nothing to stop it. Ahmed Chalabi. (interviewing) And what do you think the people expected the United States to do?

AHMED CHALABI: They expected the United States to act as a country which had just defeated another army.

PETER JENNINGS: But in the cease-fire negotiations between the Iraqi army and the United States, even as the rebellion was under way, General Schwarzkopf gave Saddam’s generals permission to use the one weapon they needed to crush the rebellion – their armed helicopters. Today, the Iraqi opposition still believes the United States wanted Saddam’s generals to win. (interviewing) Are you saying, Dr. Chalabi, that the United States got in the way of the uprising and, therefore, made it impossible?

AHMED CHALABI: They deflected the uprising. And they permitted armed helicopters to fly and kill people and shoot them. They were the most significant factor in the suppression of the uprising. They made it possible for Saddam to regroup his forces and launch a devastating counter-attack with massive firepower on the people.

PETER JENNINGS: Saddam Hussein’s revenge drove millions of Iraqis to flee. So by April of 1991, the uprising the Bush administration never wanted was over and the coup it was hoping for hadn’t yet happened ...

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