War Dance or Charade

by Joel Bleifuss

In These Times magazine, March 1998


On November 2, 1990, at a Republican campaign event in Minnesota, President George Bush took a microphone and rallied his audience behind the Gulf War. The Commander in Chief exhorted the crowd, "We cannot compromise with brutal, naked aggression." Behind him, a line of cheerleaders bounced up and down shaking pompoms. No U.S. war had ever been so expertly choreographed. As In These Times went to press, another war with Iraq appeared imminent. It is time once again to ask: Is the United States addressing a real threat or are Americans being duped into another ill-advised military adventure?

The history of U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf offers little comfort. Ever since the British Empire withered in the aftermath of World War II, the United States has increasingly tried to play power-broker in the region. Over the years, Washington has sided with numerous despotic regimes in order to ensure a steady supply of oil. In the '80s, Saddam Hussein became a key figure in that game-plan, as the United States, in an effort to counterbalance Iran, helped him build up a lethal arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. In the summer of 1990, that strategy backfired. Saddam invaded neighboring Kuwait, and it took a U.S.-led force of half a million soldiers from 21 nations to expel him.

Seven years later, another crisis has developed. U.N. inspectors believe that Iraq is still hoarding chemical and biological weapons, and may have stashed away 22 or 23 missiles of questionable readiness. If that is so, the Iraqi government is in violation of U.N. Resolution 687. A showdown with the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) began last September, when Iraq blocked inspectors from entering suspected weapons facilities. All members of the U.N. Security Council agree that Iraq's failure to comply with the inspections is a serious transgression that must be addressed. But the council is divided about whether military force should be used to compel Iraq to comply.

The Clinton administration maintains that Iraq is a "rogue state," and must be stopped from developing weapons of mass destruction. As the president said on February 17, "We have to defend our future from these predators of the 21st century." Many in the foreign policy establishment, though not so hyperbolic, agree. "This strategy is to persuade him to change his mind," says Gary Sick, a former National Security Council official who was Jimmy Carter's point-man on Iran. "But a threat is only as good as your willingness to go through with it. This is the fifth month of this episode."

Air strikes would most likely target Iraq's Republican Guard-Saddam's most elite and loyal troops-as well as intelligence and security services, and their communications transmitters. In the short run, this tactic could force Saddam to allow more inspections. In the long run, Washington hopes that the strikes might hamper his ability to control his internal security apparatus, enabling dissident officers in the military to more easily stage a coup. "I don't see it as an unrealistic strategy," says Sick.

Critics of the administration, however, think the president is too quick to reach for his guns. Some argue that the objectives of a strike are unachievable. Others fear that such a strike could have unfortunate, unintended consequences. Still others find the whole enterprise hypocritical and immoral.

Eugene Carroll is concerned about what might go wrong. A retired rear-admiral, Carroll now helps steer the Center for Defense Information, a think tank that criticizes excessive military spending. "If we bomb, what are our objectives?" he asks. If the United States wants to deny Saddam the ability to create and use weapons of mass destruction, air strikes are unlikely to complete the job-they may destroy some weapons stashes, but it would be impossible to verify the damage done. If, however, the objective is to force Saddam to make major concessions, or to run him from power altogether, air strikes are also suspect. "We hit him with 88,000 tons of bombs and missiles in 43 days of Desert Storm," says Carroll. "He didn't concede and he didn't lose control. And our much, much weaker effort this time is not going to change that."

And even if the air strikes do dislodge Saddam by provoking a coup, there is the question of succession. "Who takes his place?" asks Carroll. "Can they maintain central authority in Iraq? Can they defend the territorial integrity of Iraq against its neighbors? Iran has designs on the south, Syria on the west, and Turkey, with its Kurdish problem, on the north. This is the frightening thing. [The Clinton administration] has failed to think through the consequences of what could, in effect, destroy the state of Iraq."

Sick acknowledges that the administration's strategy has risks. "There is going to be a high price to be paid if it happens and if it is less than successful," he says. "There will be a lot of collateral damage and innocent civilians killed and wounded. The Arab world is immensely concerned about the fate of the Iraqi people. And the Arab world is very upset right now about the United States and its willingness to use maximum force against an Arab state, at the same time that Israel is flouting all kinds of resolutions and the United States does nothing about it."

It would help, of course, if the United States held the moral high ground here. But Washington has a history of failing to abide by its own principles. The United States, using a controversial interpretation of U.N. Resolution 678, justifies taking unilateral action against Iraq in order to enforce U.N. Resolution 687. This latter resolution, in addition to ordering Iraq to destroy its weapons of mass destruction, sets as an objective a Middle East ban on all weapons of mass destruction, which would include Israel's nuclear arsenal. "Chemical and biological weapons are weapons of mass destruction that the poor countries develop when they can't afford nuclear weapons," says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today s UN. "As long as somebody else in the neighborhood has at least 200 high-density nuclear bombs, other countries are going to feel compelled to match them with weapons they can afford."

Rather than escalating hostilities with Iraq, the United States ought to be taking a step back. Consider the effects that seven-plus years of economic sanctions have had on the Iraqi people: According to a 1996 UNICEF report, 4,500 children die every month in Iraq from hunger and disease. Kathy Kelly of the peace group Voices in the Wilderness argues that the United States is itself waging biological warfare against Iraq by denying the country chlorine and spare parts for water treatment plants that would have prevented waterborne diseases.

Besides killing people, war and sanctions fuel Islamic fundamentalism and risk turning the United States into an enemy of the entire region. In oil-rich kingdoms, public opinion doesn't count for much, but should the Saudi crown be toppled or the Kuwaiti sheiks fall, American access to Gulf oil would be endangered. The sanctions against Iraq can be compared to the Treaty of Versailles, which punished Germany for its part in World War I and thereby sowed the seeds of fascism. "We are worried I about weapons of mass I destruction," says Sick. "But the Iraqi people could become a weapon of mass destruction if they are convinced that the West and its Arab neighbors conspired against them. This is an extremely dangerous affair."

What else could be done? Bennis at IPS argues that there is a more constructive approach to the situation. She suggests three steps: Monitoring should continue, but the process should be clarified to outline a step-by-step procedure through which Iraq could achieve full compliance. The United Nations should consider signing off on the question of nuclear technology, and perhaps on missile technology, to show that there has, indeed, been progress. Finally, the United Nations should develop an international system to monitor not only Iraq but also the exporting countries-such as the United States, Britain, Germany and France-that supplied Saddam with these weapons in the past. Says Bennis, "If we are serious about stopping proliferation, we have to get serious about it not by demonization but by real international consensus.

Admiral Carroll suggests that the United States fix a root cause of the problem and re-examine its $268 billion a year investment in the military. "If your best tool is a hammer, you go around looking for nails to pound," he says. "We have made military force the main instrument of our foreign policy. It is the big hammer. And every so often we have to find a nail to pound, be it in Grenada, Libya, Panama or Iraq."

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