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Going It Alone

BY MICHAEL MANVILLE
09.20.2002 | POLITICS

With President Bush's bellicose speech to the United Nations, and his subsequent dismissal of Iraq's offer to readmit weapons inspectors without conditions, it seems that the list of life's certainties should make room for a new addition. To death and taxes, it is fair to say, we must add war with Iraq. The Bush Administration's rhetoric has made it clear that we will have a war, regardless of allied reluctance, UN tut-tutting, or the seething rage it might bring about in the Middle East. We will have a war because we have talked about one so much that to not deliver at this point would be an affront to political theater. There have been too many dark hints, implied threats and strong words to simply walk away; the gun mentioned in the first act must always go off in the third. We have literally talked ourselves into fighting.

It should go without saying that this is a terrible reason to invade a sovereign nation, and to the Administration's credit, it has tried to come up with better ones. The problem has been twofold; lack of evidence and lack of consistency. Those accustomed to a White House that is normally rigorously On Message must be bemused by the Bush team of late, which has flailed about wildly in its discussions of Iraq. They know they want a war, but they can't agree on why.

Consider the timeline. In the weeks after September 11, it was suggested that Mohammed Atta, the suspected terrorist ringleader, had met last summer in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. For a moment, the specter of an Iraqi hand in 9/11 danced in the realm of possibility, and a war with Iraq seemed both likely and justified.

Alas, it was not to be. After an investigation, both the FBI and CIA concluded that while no one could be sure of what Atta and the Iraqi had talked about that day, there was no evidence to suggest it was September 11th. As on CIA official told the LA Times, "bad people meet with other bad people all the time," and no one should jump to conclusions about who knew what.

This made a decent amount of sense. The fanatically religious Al Quaeda has little in common with Saddam Hussein's secular dictatorship, and Hussein, despicable as he is, has little record of exporting terrorism. He has given financial aid to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, and in the early 1980s he harbored members of the Abu Nidal group, but for the most part he has stayed content to torture his own populace. Nevertheless, Administration officials persisted in the Iraqi link, lamely stating, on condition of anonymity, that they had different information than the FBI and CIA, and that it was persuasive.

As the 9/11 link petered out, the Administration next turned to the "Axis of Evil," approach, which lumped Iraq in with Iran and North Korea as "rogue nations," who exported terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to the world. This thesis had almost too many problems to count. The term "Axis" usually implies some form of treaty or compact, but two of the three nations listed by Bush--Iran and Iraq--are sworn enemies of each other. The third, North Korea, cannot feed itself and has no meaningful relations with the other two. None have real ties to Al Quaeda: Korea is an atheist state, Iraq is, again, secular, and the Shi'ite Muslim clerics who run Iran are despised by the extremist Sunnis who comprised the Taliban and Al Quaeda. And while Iran has been known to harbor terrorists of the Hezbollah movement (particularly in the 1980s) anyone watching that country knows that it is slowly but surely overcoming its own fundamentalist tendencies: reform-minded students, intellectuals, and journalists are loosening the grip of the clerics, and the country, though hardly a democracy, has in recent years become far more accommodating to Western values and secular ideas. Of course, an act of naked American aggression against Iraq would probably bolster the clerics significantly, and set those hard-earned gains back by a decade.

Witness, after all, what happened in North Korea. That otherwise odious nation had been making promising noises about d?tente before Bush galloped in from out of nowhere, in the wake of an attack originating in the Middle East, and declared it a menace to the world. Now tensions between North and South have been renewed to the point of dangerous skirmishes and naval battles, and this owed partly to a senseless charge of terror-sponsorship. North Korea does sell weapons to the Middle East, but this is not illegal, and the country doesn't sell nearly as many arms to the region as the United States does.

Lastly, of course, there are the Axis' sins of omission: none of the countries that supplied terrorists and money to Al Quaeda (hello, Saudi Arabia) made the Axis. In fact, Bush, well after his Axis speech, met with high Saudi officials in Texas and pledged America's "eternal friendship" with the House of Saud.

For these reasons and others, the Axis idea has also lost much of its luster. And this has brought us to the latest round of accusations. Saddam has violated United Nations resolutions that mandate his allowing weapons inspectors into the country, and without the inspectors he is no doubt preparing a weapon of mass destruction, perhaps a nuclear bomb, which either he or a terrorist proxy will use against the United States.

This is a worrisome prospect, but it, too, is hobbled by logical fallacies and absence of evidence. Iraq has most certainly violated UN mandates about weapons inspections. If this warrants an invasion, however, then the US is an awkward position with regard to Israel, which has flouted just as many UN resolutions calling for a withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And the Administration has offered little more than dark prophesy to buttress its claim that Saddam is building a nuclear bomb. In early September, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair cited a 1998 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which said that Iraq could be six months away from developing a nuclear weapon. "I don't know what more evidence we need," Bush said at the time. The answer would be none, except the IAEA's report didn't say that. It said Hussein had been six to 24 months away from the bomb prior to the 1991 Gulf War, but that there was now no evidence that he had any nuclear development capability. When asked about the report, IAEA officials added for good measure, that the Administration was misinterpreting recent satellite photos at Iraqi weapons plants. "There is no new information," he said, "about Iraqi nuclear activity."

So what we are left with is a sort of blustering condescension, an elaborate version of "Trust Us, We're Experts." The beginnings of this were evident almost a year ago. In the weeks after 9/11, a cable news talking head asked conservative foreign policy analyst Robert Kaplan if he though Saddam Hussein had a role in the attacks, and his reply was one of artful misdirection. "If he's not guilty of this," Kaplan said, "he's guilty of something."

Well, sure. Hussein, to be precise, is guilty of many things, and most of them are awful. But let's keep our minds on the task at hand, shall we? Are we fighting terrorism or hunting for any available reason to have a war in Iraq? Kaplan, who has tumbled from the heights that once made him a valuable right-wing scholar, seems to be doing the latter, and the Administration seems to be parroting him. What we are dealing with now, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, is less foreign policy than "an obsession in search of a justification."

I don't wish to be misunderstood: it is within the realm of possibility that Saddam Hussein participated in the September massacre, that he is exporting terrorism on a regular basis, and that he is on the verge of having a nuclear bomb. If this is the case, however, then the evidence must be brought forward. If it is convincing, then support for war will most certainly be strong. But the United States cannot expect people to simply trust its motives in the Persian Gulf. Too much of our past in that region has been characterized by deceit, betrayal, and a willingness to sacrifice others for our own interest. This may not be President Bush's fault, but it is a burden his Administration carries, and one that should not be ignored.

* * *

In 1991, Christopher Hitchens called US policy in the Persian Gulf "a game gone tilt." The phrase implies an unbalance, and it was meant to indict a series of deft and cynical maneuvers, a policy of playing every side against the other, that had badly backfired. The counterweights had failed; one side had shot up, like the stern of a sinking ship, and was going to take the whole region down with it. (Now is as good a time as any to acknowledge that Hitchens--along with countless other reporters--ten years ago covered much of the ground I'm about retread.)

The story of America's whimsical allegiances in the Gulf begins in 1953, when the CIA engineered the overthrow of the moderate but left-leaning Dr. Mohammed Mossadeq, who had planned to nationalize Iran's oil fields. In his place the Agency installed the brutal Shah. Fueled by US money and weapons, and keeping order through a CIA-trained secret police force called SAVAK, the Shah ruled Iran as a client state of the United States. And by the early 1970s, the US became concerned about Iraq. Iraq was at that time ruled by a Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein's cousin, Hassan Al-Bakar (Hussein was a Vice-President), and in 1972 it had given asylum to the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was of course a threat to the Shah and US influence. Iraq had also recently signed a friendship agreement with the Soviet Union.

Since Iran had a longstanding border dispute with Iraq over the Al-Shabat waterway, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger convinced the Shah to support the Kurdish rebels who were fighting for independence in Northern Iraq. The idea behind this, it should be noted, was not to overthrow Iraq's government or earn the long-suffering Kurds their freedom. It was to create a situation of perpetual low-intensity conflict, and bloody Iraq at the Kurds' expense. This was made clear in 1976, when the Pike Commission released its report on the first fifteen years of CIA activities. The following passage describes the Iraq campaign:

Documents in the Commission's possession clearly show that the President, Dr. Kissinger and the foreign head of state [the Shah] hoped that our clients [the Kurds] would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally's neighboring country [Iraq]. This policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting.

Thus the duplicity began. As it turns out, the Kurds did fairly well in battling Iraq, but in 1975, again at the urging of the United States, Iran and Iraq settled their border dispute. Iraq agreed to cede Iran the Al-Shabat waterway, and in return, Iran dropped its support of the Kurds. Everyone won, in other words, except the Kurds--the very people America had urged to war. Hussein wasted little time in exacting revenge on them. Over the next three years he forcibly relocated almost half a million Kurds, burning their villages and marching them into army-controlled settlements. In just two months in 1978, 200,000 Kurds were uprooted and enclosed. Asked about this, and about America's abandonment of its clients, Kissinger said simply, "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."

The Shah, as it turned out, lasted only four years after the peace treaty was signed--he was overthrown in a 1979 coup and Khomeini seized power. That same year Hussein seized power in Iraq, in a grotesque and bloody coup. From here the realpolitik kicked quickly into play. Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbriginew Brzezinski, knowing that Iraq harbored animosity toward Iran (partly because of Iran's support of the Kurds) made public statements that he wouldn't oppose an Iraqi attack on Iran. Then an article appeared in the Financial Times, in 1980, and reported that US satellite intelligence had been provided to Iraq. With American encouragement, Hussein resurrected his country's claim to the Al-Shabat, tensions rose, and on September 20, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, beginning one the twentieth century's longest, bloodiest and most futile wars.

The United States played both sides of the Iran-Iraq conflict. It feared a Middle East dominated by radical Shi'ites more than it feared one overshadowed by Hussein, so ostensibly Iraq was its player. Hussein, at American request, expelled Abu Nidal, and was quickly granted Import-Export credits, $200 million in agricultural credits--soon raised to $500 million--and the US quickly became the top purchaser of Iraqi oil. But weapons flowed both ways; consider this entry, dated May 15, 1986, from the diary of Oliver North (the diary was essentially a tally of daily business activity):

Cunningham running guns to Baghdad for CIA, then weapons to Tehran.

The aid to Iran was technically a covert operation, but the double-dealing hardly went unnoticed by Iraq, particularly when some of the Iranian arms shipments became part of the Iran-Contra controversy. Embarrassingly, the disclosure of American aid to Iran happened just as Iran was making significant gains in the war. In 1991, when Hussein was complaining about the US abandonment of Iraq to April Glaspie, the US Ambassador, he pointed out that:

These better relations have suffered from various rifts. The worst of these was in 1986...with what was known as Irangate, which happened during the year that Iran occupied the Fao peninsula.

In the midst of this intrigue, two other factors bear mentioning. The first is that the Iraqi war effort was being heavily financed (at US behest) by both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and the second is that from sometime in 1986 through 1988 Saddam Hussein was using poison gas to commit genocide against the Kurds. Using the war with Iran as cover, Iraq launched the Anfal campaign, in which an estimated 182,000 Kurds were murdered. The Reagan Administration blocked an attempt at placing economic sanctions on Iraq, and the Bush Administration, well aware of Saddam's crimes against humanity, in 1989 doubled his agricultural credits to $1 billion a year.

As the war dragged on, Kuwait did two things that aroused the Iraq's ire. First, it began flooding the world market with oil. OPEFC had set the world price for 1986 at $18 per barrel, but Kuwait exceeded its quota enough to send the price down to $13 per barrel. Since Iraq was some $70 billion in debt--largely because of its disastrous war--the market manipulation was incredibly harmful, and particularly galling since it was being done by a putative ally. While this was happening, Kuwait also began "slant-drilling" into Iraqi oil wells in a border area between the two countries that had long been the subject of dispute. From here sprang the tension that led Hussein to mass troops on the Kuwaiti border, and which led, on July 25, 1991, to Hussein's now infamous meeting with US Ambassador April Glaspie. On the eve of a new war in the Gulf, their conversation is worth looking at again:

Ambassador Glaspie: I have direct instructions from President Bush to improve our relations with Iraq. We have considerable sympathy for your quest for higher oil prices, the immediate cause of your confrontation with Kuwait. As you know, I lived here for years and admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country. We know you need funds. We understand that, and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country...[But] I have received an instruction to ask you--in the spirit of friendship, not confrontation--regarding your intentions: Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait's borders?

In reply, Hussein states that he is frustrated with Kuwait, and although he is prepared to try negotiations one more time (at a meeting scheduled for July 27), "if we are unable to find a solution, then it will be natural that Iraq will not accept death." To which Glaspie responds, "What solutions would be acceptable?" And Hussein says:

If we could keep the whole of the Shatt Al Arab--our strategic goal in our war with Iran--we will make concessions [to the Kuwaitis]. But if we are forced to choose between keeping half of the Shatt and the whole of Iraq [in Hussein's view, the "whole of Iraq" included Kuwait--before being created by British colonial authorities, the area that is now Kuwait had been ruled from the area that is now Iraq], then we will...defend our claims on Kuwait, to keep the whole of Iraq in the shape we wish it to be. What is the United States' opinion on this?

Ambassador Glaspie: We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your border dispute with Kuwait. I was in the American embassy in Kuwait in the late 60s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue, and that this issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed me to emphasize this instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that this issue is not associated with America. (Emphasis added.)

Four days later, to use Hitchens' phrase, the game went tilt. Iraq invaded Kuwait. In September of 1991, two British journalists got hold of the above transcripts and confronted Glaspie as she left the American embassy. "You knew Saddam was going to invade Kuwait," one of them said to her, "but you didn't warn him not to. You didn't tell him America would defend Kuwait. You told him the opposite--that America was not associated with Kuwait."

Glaspie said nothing, and the second journalist joined in: "You encouraged this aggression--his invasion. What were you thinking?"

At this point Glaspie made one of the more regrettable statements of her career: "Obviously, I didn't think, and nobody else did, that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait." The stunned journalist replied in the only way appropriate. "You thought he was just going to take some of it?" There not being much to say to that, Glaspie climbed into her car and sped off.

Conspiracy theorists like to point to this episode as evidence of the US intentionally goading Hussein into war. While that is possible, I find Glaspie's explanation more plausible--she and Secretary Baker grossly miscalculated their ability to keep the violence perpetual but contained. So long as no one country controlled the Middle East, America could. Suddenly, however, one of our clients was asserting itself, and this required action.

In the days that followed, the first Bush Administration banged the war drum relentlessly. Bush called Hussein "worse than Hitler," and set about building an international coalition and arousing domestic support for war. In a much-publicized proceeding on October 10, a 15 year-old Kuwaiti girl identified only as Nayirah testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Nayirah said she had volunteered at the al-Addan hospital in Kuwait, and "While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and into the room where...babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, too the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die."

In the three months between her testimony and the outbreak of war, this story was repeated countless times, in Congressional testimony, in speeches by President Bush and Vice President Quayle, and in front of the United Nations. It was only after the war that the truth about the incident came out. There had been no "baby killing." Nayirah had never been at the hospital--she had not even been in Kuwait. She was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, and a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. And the entire affair had been scripted by Hill and Knowlton, the public relations firm hired by Kuwait to buff its image in the US (the country was and is, after all, a dictatorship.)

Most of this was lost in the ticker-tape parades. Lost, too, was James Baker's infamous admission that America's war in the Gulf was prosecuted for the sake of "jobs,jobs, jobs." The public had already decided that our war in the Gulf had been about "restoring" balance and democracy--two objectives we had never been interested in before and had not, in fact, accomplished in 1991. There are no fewer dictatorships in the Persian Gulf now than there were prior to 1991, although one dictatorship--Iraq--is now a ruin. The 1991 war was devastating for Iraqis: although the country had, technically, the world's fourth-largest military, most of its soldiers had no desire to be serving their tyrant, and fewer still wanted to fight. Those not incinerated by the war's opening air campaign stumbled over themselves to surrender to Allied troops. Bombing ruined most of the country's infrastructure, including hospitals, water distribution facilities, and other social services. And then came the sanctions.

The debate over how severe the sanctions on Iraq is an endless one. The most ardent opponents of the sanctions put their death toll at close to 2 million, while sanctions supporters dismiss such numbers as a looney-left fantasy. To a certain extent, the argument itself is ridiculous, since by any available measure the sanctions are a humanitarian catastrophe. Earlier this year, the libertarian magazine Reason--hardly a mouthpiece of Chomskyian radicalism--ran a thoughtful article on the sanctions death toll, and arrived at a conservative estimate of 107,000 dead, and a more scenario of over 350,000 sanctions-related deaths, over 100,000 of which were children under 5. That this is far less than the millions propounded by other agencies should hardly be a source of comfort. "The basic argument against all economic sanctions remains," Reason concluded. "Namely, that they tend to punish civilians more than governments and to provide dictators with a gift-wrapped propaganda tool."

And that, as much as anything, describes our history in the Persian Gulf--we have punished innocent civilians and rewarded dictators, played tyrants against one another, switched sides at will, sent mixed-messages to client states, assisted evil men and then expressed outrage at their evil. America encouraged Iraq's two adventures in expansionism and sat idle during his genocide, but today we denounce him as a genocidal expansionist. We pay nothing for such cynicism. But the citizens of Iraq--hurled into two useless wars, gassed by their own government, bombed and left to suffer under sanctions that fail horribly at deposing a tyrant we maintained--have paid more than they can afford. Perhaps this is wrong. Perhaps the time to end it is now.

* * *

Therein lies the one case for war. There is no other, for the others have no consistency, and certainly no consistency that matches the torture visited on a people whose main crime was to be born in land that is oil-rich and freedom-poor. Civilians have been our one consistent enemy in the Gulf--it is only they who we have always been against--and an argument can be made that for once, we should go to war to liberate rather than enslave them. But doing so would require a different kind of war; it cannot be an air war, characterized by cluster bombs and fuel-air explosives, where people are slaughtered in the name of liberating them. It also cannot be a war alone, for the war will be the easy part. Thirty years of American policy has gone toward violence and deterring democracy in the Persian Gulf, and at least that amount of time will be required to build institutions of civil society. This time, we will have to export democracy, not weapons, tyranny and underhandedness.

But let's, now, be honest. If we prosecute a war against Saddam Hussein, it will not likely be done in this way, nor for these reasons. We will do it with guided missiles and vacuum bombs, and we will do it because Iraq sits atop the world's second-largest supply of oil. We will do it because installing a friendly and not-necessarily democratic government there would reduce our dependency on Saudi Arabia. We will fight in Iraq because in the aftermath of 9/11, the political need to do something trumps the need to do something right. Going to war will medicate our own frightened and angry populace, for if we cannot find Osama bin Laden, we can certainly find Saddam Hussein, and defeating him will create the illusion of a victory over terrorism, even as bin Laden eludes us. Our new war will chase away the ghosts of September, and the ghosts as well of a corporate economy rapidly collapsing under the weight of its own fraud.

Few tears will be shed when Saddam Hussein's rule meets its rightful end. But we err when we assume that deposing a dictator is in itself a noble act. We have deposed many dictators in the past, and replaced them with equal tyrants who we cloaked in the now-tired rhetoric of democracy. For this reason we have earned the skepticism with which the world now views us. In the Persian Gulf, ours is a history without honor, and our cause has rarely been just. They who would bury more men in the Middle East owe us far more than bluster. Thus the onus is on the Bush Administration. They owe us evidence, and if they want their war taken seriously, they owe us as well a reckoning--an acknowledgement of past crimes and a plan that shows us something meaningfully better.

These, of course, likely will not come. But the war will. It has ever been thus; the powerful have never lacked the capacity for betrayal. Nor the powerless for broken hearts.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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