Thursday, August 01, 2002

Iraq sanctions & the moral contradictions of "anti-war" rhetoric

Hi X,

Thanks for sending me yet another petition opposing war in Iraq. As my last message should have made clear, I can't sign it in good conscience ... though I do agree very much with SOME of the points in the statement (and I disagree with others).

Some key points in the statement happen to be mutually contradictory. For example, one reason offered against war is that the sanctions imposed on Iraq are killing Iraqi children, and constitute a major human-rights violation. On the other hand, another point suggests that military action is unnecessary because "the policy of containment [is] working well." One characteristic passage reads:

"In briefings calculated to query the administration's persistent sabre rattling towards Iraq, unnamed officers told the Washington Post that the policy of containment was working well and that the alternative, a military assault, was too riddled with risk to be worth pursuing."

Perhaps, but this contradicts the previous point. Sanctions against Iraq are a crucial part of the "policy of containment." If the sanctions are criminal, then how can the policy be "working well"? And if the sanctions are removed, the "policy of containment" will collapse. You can't have it both ways.

(In fact, as I noted in my previous message, I see the dilemma revealed by this contradiction as critical. One of the reasons I don't believe that it's possible to simply let things go on as they are now is that, in the long run, maintaining sanctions against Iraq is politically unsustainable. The pressure of economic interests has been eroding them steadily, and will eventually lead to their collapse--which will be justified by both sincere concerns and hypocritical crocodile tears about the suffering of Iraqi civilians. If this happens while Saddam Hussein's regime is still in power, the results will be catastrophic. The only morally and politically acceptable way to lift the sanctions is for this to be combined with the overthrow of the Ba'ath regime. It's too bad this wasn't done 5, 6, or even 10 years ago, but better late than never.

At all events, it should be clear by now that "the policy of containment" hasn't been working all that well--as the statement itself suggests.)

=> However I'm inclined to agree with almost everything the statement says about the motives and untrustworthiness of the Bush administration in this matter, and the great dangers of letting it proceed unilaterally. So this issue presents some very difficult dilemmas.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub


[A response from my correspondent --JW]

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your two thoughtful messages on Iraq and Bush's war drive. I certainly agree whole-heartedly with you on the character of Saddam's regime. However, I believe that several of the claims you make about the sanctions regime and international law are just factually wrong.

Regarding the sanctions, for most of the past 6 or 7 years I too took a position nearly identical to the one you're arguing now, so I understand it very well. However, some recent research outside of the ambit of the New York Times, etc.--spurred by my spring 2002 attendance of a talk by Denis Halliday, former U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, and subsequent long conversation with him that evening--convinced me that in fact I had been regurgitating a lot of sophisticated disinformation circulated by US and British policy makers since the mid-1990s. (By the way, the Clinton Administration bears a considerable historical responsibility in all of this. I understand that Clinton was under perpetual investigation and harassment from the Republicans in Congress and probably felt he was in no position to risk political capital on so unpopular a cause as civilian deaths in Iraq. In this sense, the Republicans bear the brunt of the responsibility for what happened, starting with the disgraceful conduct of the Bush I administration in the spring of 1991, which you analyzed thoroughly and accurately in your two messages. Still, Clinton should come clean and apologize to the Iraqi and US people for his administration's Iraq policies, as he did in the case of Rwanda. But let's leave all this aside for now and cut to the heart of the empirical disagreement I have with your position.)

I'll follow your lead and bounce off excerpts from your pieces.

Some key points in the statement happen to be mutually contradictory. For example, one reason offered against war is that the sanctions imposed on Iraq are killing Iraqi children, and constitute a major human-rights violation. On the other hand, another point suggests that military action is unnecessary because "the policy of containment [is] working well." One characteristic passage reads:
"In briefings calculated to query the administration's persistent saber rattling towards Iraq, unnamed officers told the Washington Post that the policy of containment was working well and that the alternative, a military assault, was too riddled with risk to be worth pursuing."
Perhaps, but this contradicts the previous point. Sanctions against
Iraq are a crucial part of the "policy of containment." If the sanctions
are criminal, then how can the policy be "working well"? And if the
sanctions are removed, the "policy of containment" will collapse. You can't have it both ways.

Well, actually two distinct claims are being made here. The first asserts that the sanctions regime as it has worked over the last decade has constituted a major human rights violation. The second says that the policy of containment has been effective in containing Saddam's geopolitical ambitions and his attempts to maintain the capability to produce and use weapons of mass destruction. In fact both of these claims are true. The only contradiction would be if the sanctions regime as constituted over the past decade played a crucial role in making containment work, which--in direct contradiction to your assumptions--is manifestly false. Most of the sanctions had very little to do with the success of the policy of containment, which worked because of the constraints imposed on the Iraqi military by the no-fly zones, etc. Think here about the Soviet Union in the Cold War period and you begin to see how peripheral sanctions against food and medicine really are in this story--except in helping Saddam revive his regime in the eyes of some of his brutalized subjects.

In retrospect, what should have been implemented immediately after the Gulf War were "smart sanctions"--limited restrictions of the sale of certain military materials to Hussein, like military equipment, military spare parts, ammunition, and supercomputers. (Well, what REALLY should have happened was that the US should have backed the popular revolution in Iraq, instead of betraying it to Hussein, but we've already covered that.) Instead, the sanctions imposed were brutal and counterproductive, as they targeted the whole Iraqi economy and its people (especially children),destroyed the middle-class base of any possible alternative regime, and pulled off a truly remarkable feat: they helped revive Saddam's legitimacy among significant sectors of the Iraqi population, which has turned harshly anti-US. Think Stalin at the end of the Second World War or Castro under the embargo for the appropriate historical analogy.

The column by Kudlow you forwarded was genuinely repulsive, and confirmed my impression that Larry Kudlow is a dangerous lunatic.

But I have been almost equally offended by the mindless and morally bankrupt quality of many of the "anti-war" statements I've been getting over e-mail lately. A lot of these are the same people who have been calling for an end to sanctions, on the ground that these are (allegedly) killing Iraqi children. In fact, the sanctions regime has been gradually crumbling for a while. And, at all events, the Ba'ath regime has for a long time has been getting more than enough oil money to provide food, medical care, and education for its children. (The situation in the autonomous portions of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been subject to the same sanctions, and which emerged from the 1991 much more devastated than the rest of Iraq, is enough to make this clear.) The problem is that the regime prefers to spend the money on repression, presidential palaces, ethnic cleansing in the Mosul/Kirkuk area and the southern marshes, and a continuing massive nuclear weapons program.

I think this paragraph is simply wrong on a number of crucial points. You are certainly right about the regime's expenditures on repression and grandiose projects for the Ba'ath elite. But the situation is much more complex than you indicate. For instance, the vast majority of the civilian deaths in Saddam-controlled Irag have been caused by two utterly indefensible components of the sanction regime. The first of these was the prohibition of the import of many medicines designated under the most flimsy of conditions as transferable to bioweapons uses, like common vaccines, antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, and so on. The second concerns the import of water-infrastructure materials. The majority of child deaths in Iraq since 1992 have been caused by water-borne diseases carried to homes and villages through the wreckage of the public water-supply system, which was deliberately targeted and bombed during the Gulf War--a war crime, by the way, under the Geneva Convention that had no conceivable military purpose. For reasons that are simply impossible to defend, the US and Britain have repeatedly vetoed the UN teams responsible for implementing the "oil for food" program from allowing the import of any of the water pumps, filters, pipes and so on that the Hussein regime would need to import to fix the previously state-of-the-art water system. Moreover, they have systematically blocked the regime from contracting this work out to Western firms, though they have allowed plenty of Western firms to buy Iraqi oil and export luxury items to the elite. Thus Dick Cheney's tenure at Halliburton included the setting up of front corporations in Central Asia to "do bidness" with Saddam--but for oil and oil-drilling and pipeline equipment, not to ship medicines or water pumps. Finally, the US and Britain have blocked the regime from importing many of the medicines that are needed to treat water-borne illnesses among young children.

Why such policies? I think it's just a consequence of a bunch of immoral and corrupt clowns in the Congress and the British Parliament who were ready to jump all over any colleague who dared to show "weakness" toward Saddam by talking, for instance, about civilian deaths in Iraq. So they just kept in place a policy that amounted to the mass murder of children and which only strengthened the dictator they were ostensibly targeting. Wow, great, makes you proud to be an American or a Brit. Here, I think much of the leftist rhetoric on the sanctions is quite justified. You should download and read through the following pieces by Denis Halliday on these matters:

In strictly legal terms, the justification for military action is simple and straightforward: In 1991, after losing the Gulf War, the Iraqi regime signed a peace agreement--whose terms it has consistently and blatantly violated. War is legally justified on these grounds alone, so the only question is whether it's wise and morally justified. The suggestion that an attack on Saddam Hussein's regime, which is clearly hated by the great majority of Iraqis, would somehow be an assault on the Iraqi people--well, this is either disingenuous or absurd.

I think you're really off-base here, Jeff. First, no matter how much some majority of the Iraqi populace hates Saddam's fascist regime, it's simply ludicrous to suggest that they therefore would prefer to be bombed into an early grave. One of the things I find most horrifying about the current debate about Iraq is the almost complete silence on the civilian causalities such an attack would entail. Since Baghdad would have to be taken, and since the US and the Brits will clearly preface the attack with withering bombing with high-tech incendiary weaponry, you're talking tens to hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, and countless more injured and impoverished for the rest of their lives. Is this a price they're willing to pay? Neither the American or British governments has the slightest right to make this decision for the people of Iraq, anymore than Saddam and his henchmen do. More on this in a moment; first let's deal with the international law issue.

The whole crux of the matter turns on whether or not the Saddam regime fulfilled the terms of the Gulf War settlement on weapons of mass destruction. According to the majority of the top officials who oversaw the UNSCOM and other UN programs on the ground in Iraq from 1992-98--including Scott Ritter, Halliday, and Hans von Sponeck (who replaced Halliday after the later resigned in protest of the cynical and manipulative policies of the American and British governments)--Iraqi has come as close to full compliance as can be proved in a court of law. Even Richard Butler, who has consistently argues that Saddam remains bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, argues that there is no legal case for attacking Iraq. Thus your whole argument crumbles--according to the extant international law, a US invasion of Iraq tomorrow without presentation of proof of Iraqi non-compliance with the Gulf War protocols would have all the legal standing of Hitler's invasion of Poland. And it would be seen as such across the Middle East and South Asia, a fact that only a fool or a megalomaniac would ignore.

The only thing the US and Britain have going for them legally is the fact that Saddam expelled the weapons inspectors in 1998. But this is a flimsy thread indeed, as by 1998 UNSCOM had certified that 90-95% of his WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capabilities had been demolished, and ye t the US and Britain refused to lift the sanctions any way. In Ritter's words, it would be "physically impossible" to identify 100 percent of pre-Gulf War Iraqi WMD capabilities, because of the massive destruction of Iraqi weapons facilities during the war and because the Iraqis themselves scrambled to destroy remaining WMD materials in the mid-1990s that they had been trying to hang onto in the years immediately following the Gulf War, before UNSCOM could get to them and nail them for violating the sanctions. Ritter lays all this out in the piece I circulated a few days ago. Thus the US and British argument that sanctions can not be lifted until "100 percent" of pre-Gulf War Iraqi WMD materials have been identified and destroyed is a total red herring, and Iraq quickly realized that under international law, the US and Britain were violating the terms of the Gulf War settlement themselves. This gave the Iraqis the international cover they needed to kick the inspectors out.

To top all this off, the Iraqis have repeatedly agreed in negotiations with Kofi Annan to re-admit inspection teams, but the Americans and British keep insisting on such outlandish and absurd conditions for the inspectors that the regime can't possibly agree, as the conditions the US and Britain are demanding in fact would constitute an agreement to let the CIA and M-5 come in and erect the infrastructure to organize a coup against the regime. No regime would do this, and why would Saddam? Being the thug he is, he'd rather go down punching than let the CIA inspect all of his bedrooms and figure out how to assassinate him. Saying this in no way amounts to an apology for Saddam's totalitarian despotism, it just states things the way they are. In sum, your argument that the US has a clear legal basis under international law to attack Iraq is just plain wrong. A Reuter's article on Tuesday, July 30, demonstrates that the French and German governments agree with my interpretation: "French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said on Tuesday they could not support any possible U.S. attack on Iraq without a United Nations mandate. 'An attack would only be justified if a mandate was approved by the U.N. Security Council. That is the position of Germany and France,' Chirac told a joint news conference after a Franco-German summit in the eastern city of Schwerin. Schroeder said German troops could only participate in such an action with a U.N. mandate and if the German parliament agreed. 'There would be no majority for intervention without a U.N. mandate,' he told the news conference. Chirac said he hoped Iraqi President Saddam Hussein realized it was in his interest to accept the readmission of U.N. weapons inspectors in return for lifting of sanctions against Baghdad. 'I think Iraq would do well to understand how necessary it is for his country to quickly agree with the Secretary General of the United Nations,' he said. " (See )

The fact that the UN and most of our allies agree with me on this point underscores the danger of going along with Bush on his crazy war drive, for it legitimates Bush's tendency to define "international law" as "whatever I decide is law," a tendency whose cumulating consequences are now bearing fruit in the form of a drift into generalized global warfare and a "permanent state of emergency" in the United States. Moreover, the launching of an attack under these circumstances would be considered an act of international aggression and terrorism, and any Iraqi civilian deaths would rightly be considered a war crime under international law. Maybe this is one reason the Bushies were so insistent on withdrawing the US from the International Criminal Court? A final set of remarks on your analysis. I don't disagree with your assessment of what Saddam would do if he could reconstitute WMD capabilities. All the evidence, however, points to the success of containment, and there's no reason we can't continue containment in a more humane form by lifting sanctions against the Iraqi civilian sector i n return for the re-introduction of UN weapons inspectors under conditions deemed reasonable by the UN as a whole, not just the American and British governments. Containment has been highly effective in the past with similar regimes possessing similar capabilities (think Stalin), and will continue to be the only viable and morally justifiable policy option for similar cases in the future. Moreover, such a policy shift would spare the greatest number of innocent Iraqi civilian lives while maximizing the chances for a post-Hussein democratization without handing the Islamo-fascists across the Middle East and South Asia the Mother of All political opportunities.

For all these reasons, I urge you, indeed I plead with you, to sign the petition and bring your wisdom, insight and nuance actively into the anti-war movement, where it is sorely needed to temper some of our younger and less well-informed hot heads. Sitting on the sidelines is disastrous in these circumstances; think of all the compromises that had to be made in the fight against Hitler, for instance--like working with Stalin. The discomfort of working with some over-heated young anarchists on the left of the anti-war movement looks trivial, by comparison. Here, I'm afraid rhetorical excess is inevitable. But I strongly feel that the term "neofascism" is very accurate as applied to the Bush regime, and for simply descriptive, historical reasons. There's no need to review here the stealing of elections, the corporate authoritarianism, the ultra-rightist faux Christian millenarianism, the sweeping suspensions of constitutional protections, the flagrant and repeated violations of laws like the Freedom of Information Act, and on and on. What we're seeing in the drive to launch a war against Iraq is the imperial component of the package in its rawest and most savage form. Bush and Saddam and their neofascist ilk need each other to keep their megalomaniac ambitions going. At the same time that Bush is cratering in the polls, he's painted himself into a corner on Iraq. Though I feel more and more confident that we can drive Bush from office before 2004, the most dangerous time to be around a mad beast is when it's wounded. So the situation demands urgent action to paralyze Bush from below, with mass protests and any and every peaceful means we can muster.

One last point--think about Israel in all of this. Is it not clear that Bush, like Sharon, wants to prevent any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though for very different reasons than Sharon? Isn't the goal here to keep Israel hyper-dependent on the US so that the US can call in chits from the Israeli right when it needs some regional dirty work done? Isn't the goal also to divert Arab anger from the US onto "the Jews"? Aren't such policies the height of cynicism, and don't they objectively feed the growing anti-Semitism in the Arab world? And if the US has to drastically and suddenly scale back its imperial policies in the near to mid-range future, a la the Soviets in the 80s, won't this leave the Israeli people hung out to dry, to pay the price of Bush's war-mongering and cynical use of "the Israeli card" in today's circumstances? The stakes couldn't be higher for all the peoples of the world. Again, for all these reasons, I urge you, I plead with you, I beg you, to sign the petition and join actively in the rapidly growing anti-war movement.

In solidarity and peace,