Tuesday, March 26, 2002

"Reality checks" on Iraq, genocide, etc.

A response from a friend to my earlier message (which referred to pieces by David Hirst and Jeffrey Goldberg on Iraqi Kurdistan) ... and my counter-response. --Jeff Weintraub

Hi Jeff;

"Reality checks" that say nothing about
-- Reagan's and Bush Sr's support for Saddam Hussein until the Gulf War, right through his murdering the Kurds in chemical attacks
-- the US opposing a Security Council resolution to condemn Iraq for the attacks, and going on supplying Hussein with arms, and the attacks barely mentioned in the US media;
-- the US constant support for its good ally, Turkey, through its genocidal war against its Kurds;
-- and why Sadam was not removed from power at the end of the Gulf War,;
Hi X,

Absolutely. These are MY arguments. (And, believe me, this is not news to either Kanan Makiya or Jeffrey Goldberg.) As far back as the mid-1980s, when Saddam Hussein's Iraq was being described as one of the "moderate" Arab states (= oil-producing dictatorships supported by the U.S.), I made myself unpopular in some circles by pointing out that this was in fact a horrifyingly brutal dictatorship, and that it was a scandal that nobody in the "international community" raised a serious protest against the undeniable use of poison gas against the Iranians, and later against Iraqi civilians.

Saddam Hussein did all this with impunity, partly because just about all other powers sided with Iraq against Iran, and were terrified by the prospect of an Iranian victory, and partly because of Iraq's massive oil reserves, which gave a wide range of countries strong economic interests in staying friendly with the Iraqi regime, whatever it did. Let me point out that all through the 1980s Iraq was uncritically supported, not just by the U.S., but also by the Soviet Union (in fact, Iraq was primarily a Soviet client), by China, by the major European powers, and by the entire Arab world (with the exception of Syria, for its own special reasons). German, French, and British corporations (as well as the French government) were falling over themselves to help the regime develop its capacities for building nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The U.S. and European foreign policy establishments saw Saddam Hussein as a linchpin of regional "stability," though perhaps a bit rough around the edges; people like Chevenement in Mitterand's government also saw the Ba'ath regime in Iraq as the very model of a "secular, progressive" Middle Eastern regime; etc. Given all this, Saddam Hussein figured he could get away with any brutality, and he was right.

And the conclusion you want to draw is ... that we should make the same mistakes, and let him do it again? That because the outside world did nothing to prevent mass murder on a scale approaching genocide in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1980s (with something like 100,000 Iraqi civilians systematically murdered in one campaign alone, operation 'Anfal in 1988), we should do nothing to prevent it from happening again--and, instead, actively promote the conditions for a repetition? I'm sorry, but I don't follow the logic.

With one small exception, I will not quarrel at all with the catalogue of political immorality, hypocrisy, and idiocy on the part of the U.S. that you lay out above. (The one exception has to do with your remark about Turkey, which I'm afraid is just a cliche. I am the last person to say a word in defense of the brutal campaign of repression in Turkish Kurdistan during the last two decades. But if you think this is in the same league as the campaign of massive devastation and genocidal mass murder carried out by the Iraqi Ba'ath regime in Iraqi Kurdistan, then you are living on another planet.) In fact, I have been ranting about precisely these things since the mid-80s (you can ask Ageliki), and I have gotten increasingly angry and appalled about them the more I've understood the truly horrifying character and record of the Ba'ath regime. Pointing out the hypocrisy and immorality of past U.S. (and European, Arab, Soviet/Russian) policies toward Iraq is all too correct--and stunningly irrelevant to the question of what ought to be done now. The point, rather, is to prevent it from happening again.
Yes, Sadam is hideously evil. Is the US benevolent?
No. And so what? A surprisiing number of otherwise intelligent people seem to believe that this somehow constitutes a serious argument about the substantive issues. It doesn't. By itself, it's just an evasion of the real issues.

The fact is that I am very nervous about the prospect of a U.S. (or U.S.-led) war against Saddam Hussein's regime. Not because it's either legally or morally unjustified (that's ridiculous), nor because we don't need to worry about his obtaining nuclear weapons (that's lunatic), nor because this would be a "war against the Iraqi people" (that's idiotic and contemptible). Rather, I worry about what happens after the Iraqi regime collapses, how Iraq gets put back together, and whether the U.S. (or anyone else) is willing or able to put in the resources, military protection, and long-term commitment to help Iraq reconstruct and develop some kind of semi-decent regime. This would require a degree of political intelligence, far-sightedness, and willingness for long-term commitment that I don't see any good reason to expect from the present U.S. administration (or from the Europeans or--God help us!--the Arabs, either). The 1991 Gulf War, which was a political success but a political catastrophe, is a worrying object lesson here.

On the other hand, the question is what the realistic alternatives are. Simply letting the present situation continue is morally and politically intolerable. And letting Saddam Hussein and his regime escape from sanctions and acquire nuclear weapons would be even more immoral and unforgivable.

Jeffrey Goldberg's piece is useful not because it resolves these questions (it doesn't try to), but because it helps make clear what is really at stake. Let's be clear: All that prevents a massive bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan is the fact that Saddam Hussein is presently constrained by a combination of sanctions and fear of military retaliation if he invades the protected zone in the north. If the sanctions collapse while Saddam Hussein is still in power (and this seemed well on the way toward happening, driven mostly by European and Russian economic interests, justified by nauseatingly hypocritical crocodile tears about the suffering of Iraqi civilians), then he will have broken out of the box. If, as a bonus, he gets nuclear weapons, then he will REALLY have impunity. When this happens, then one solidly predictable outcome, in the fairly near term, is that the regime will move to carry out a Final Solution to the Kurdish problem in northern Iraq.

This bothers me, and it's bothered me since 1991 (since this has long been a predictable outcome, for anyone who took the trouble to think about the matter seriously). People who advocate policies that clear the way for this outcome are--let me be blunt--helping promote the likelihood of genocide. I submit that, on the contrary, we ought to be trying to think about the best and most realistic ways to help prevent this outcome. I'm frankly not sure what the best solution is, but at least the problem ought to be faced seriously--and, at the very least, we should try to avoid measures that make a genocidal outcome MORE likely.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub