Iraq and Kosovo

06 April 1999
Article

Bill Clinton has switched TV channels from the largely hidden, but still lethal, crisis in Iraq to the far more visually compelling disaster in Kosovo.

The US-British bombing of Iraq, halted for more than two weeks in the run-up to NATO's bombing of Serbia, resumed at the beginning of April. Among the targets destroyed on April 1st was the communications station controlling the flow of Iraqi oil to the Mina al-Bakr terminal south of Basra, Iraq's main Persian Gulf port. The still-sanctioned oil is shipped out from the port as part of the Oil for Food program; senior oil ministry officials said repairs had been made and oil was flowing as of April 3rd.

With the domestic and global media focused on the humanitarian and political crises in Kosovo, little American attention was paid to the resumption of bombing in the US-British imposed 'no fly zones' in Iraq. US officials issued no explanation for their attack on the oil communications centre, an economic installation whose targeting is therefore prohibited under international law. And little press interest has emerged in the latest documentation of the sanctions-driven human toll in Iraq. In fact, the most recent UN report acknowledges that little has changed. 'Under current conditions the humanitarian outlook will remain bleak and become more serious with time," the humanitarian impact panel reported to the Security Council on March 30. "Infant mortality rates in Iraq today are among the highest in the world. Low infant birth weight affects at least 23 percent of all births, chronic malnutrition affects every fourth child under 5 years of age; only 41 percent of the population have regular access to clean water; 83 percent of all schools need substantial repairs. ... The gravity of the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people is indisputable and cannot be overstated'.

The continuing human catastrophe must, at this moment of proving the US ability to wage two regional wars simultaneously, inevitably link Iraq with Kosovo (although so far, at least, the civilian deaths in Kosovo fall dramatically behind the sanctions-driven toll in Iraq). But the political and strategic parallels emerge as perhaps even more direct analogues.

The crucial parallel begins with Washington's undermining and marginalizing of the United Nations. In the case of Iraq, especially in the last year, the US has replaced UN primacy with an unabashed unilateralism in Iraq policy. For Kosovo, Washington's international agency of choice to provide an international imprimatur is NATO - a military alliance without a shred of authority to make the decisions the UN Charter claims as its own. In both Iraq and Kosovo the UN's role was degraded and ridiculed by US diplomats; when Council members insisted that Resolution 1159 of February 1998, calling for "severest consequences" in the event of future Iraqi violations of UNSCOM access agreements, did not provide automatic US authority for military strikes, then-Ambassador Bill Richardson simply shrugged and said the US believes it does have the authority. More recently, when France proposed a Council debate on how to respond to Kosovo, the US simply refused, placing the matter in NATO's hands.

The two wars together give the Pentagon long-sought evidence that it can indeed fight two regional wars at the same time - at least wars in which the opposition is weak to non-existent. Logistics officers are showing off their ability to, for instance, shift EA-6B planes, used to destroy anti-aircraft batteries, out of Turkey from where they attacked Iraqi "no-fly zones," to the Balkans. The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, heading towards the Gulf, was diverted to the Adriatic. And Iraq and Kosovo jointly provide a pretense to continue a bloated arms budget. Just as one example, the claimed "shortage" of million-dollars-each cruise missiles, as a result of the hundreds used up in Iraq during and since December's Desert Fox operation and in Kosovo just in the first days of the air war, means increased Pentagon leverage on Congress for new funding for more missiles, and for over $50 million more to convert 92 nuclear cruise missiles into conventional models. (It should be noted that the Pentagon's $270 billion budget contains virtually no budget lines to actually fight a war. One wonders whether Congress might decide to simply swap its recent $50 million refugee assistance grant for the $50 million needed to convert the once-nuclear missiles into conventional [and thus economically as well as politically usable] missiles.)

Other political parallels abound. In both Iraq and Kosovo bombing campaigns consolidate, rather than diminish, political support for appalling leaders. Even reluctant citizens, once made victims of US-British-NATO bombing campaigns, tend to respond with a circle-the-wagons reaction that only heightens xenophobia and nationalism. In both cases US-orchestrated demonization of brutal (and certainly deservedly demonized) leaders is deliberately widened to demonize entire populations, thus weakening potential anti-bombing sentiment in the US while heightening popular solidarity with Saddam Hussein or Slobodon Milosevic inside Iraq or Serbia.

In both cases direct US actions made bad conditions significantly worse. In both Iraq and Serbia, massive violations of civil and political rights by each country's dictator were answered with a US response that actually strengthened the existing denial of political rights, while stripping the victimized people of their economic and social rights, the little that remained of their human rights. In Iraq, economic sanctions have subjected an entire population to disease, loss of education, insufficient food, unclean water and possible death - while doing nothing to restore their political rights. Similarly, the NATO bombing that was supposed to force Milosevic to grant political rights to the Albanian Kosovars actually led to a massive escalation in the Serbian government's brutal expulsions, a tough crack-down on Serbia's anti-war opposition, and exacerbation of a humanitarian crisis of gargantuan proportions.

The governments of Iraq and Serbia were both formerly tied, one through military partnership, the other through a grudging diplomatic alliance, to the US But both governments eventually proved unwilling to play by US rules. US policy towards both brutal dictatorships then focuses on economic sanctions and bombing - not diplomacy. In Iraq, the world's most comprehensive sanctions continue to slaughter civilians and prevent any hope of the rehabilitation of Iraqi society. In Serbia, like in Iraq, sanctions have helped create a powerful anti-Western, "us against them" dynamic that fuels a spiralling political extremism. And in both Iraq and Serbia the US claims it had "no alternative" but to bomb - bombing to force Saddam Hussein to allow UNSCOM promised access, bombing to force Slobodon Milosevic to sign the Rambouillet agreement. In both cases the US failed.

In both cases the US deliberately undermined the potential of flawed, but at least partially effective, international instruments. In Iraq, UNSCOM had succeeded, despite Baghdad's obstructionism, at finding and eliminating the vast majority of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But the discovery that Washington had placed spies within UNSCOM, and had used its technology to provide intelligence that may well have assisted US military assaults against Iraq, led to UNSCOM's functional demise. Similarly, the withdrawal of the 1400 OSCE monitors (however limited their efficacy because their mandate allowed only an unarmed observer presence rather than a serious protection force) on the eve of the NATO bombing at the moment their presence might have made the greatest difference, allowed the violent escalation of attacks on the Albanian Kosovars to take place without a watchful international presence.

In neither Iraq nor Kosovo was a real effort made to use international war crimes charges as a means of deterrence. US diplomats have long insisted that Milosevic was a "necessary partner" in Balkan diplomacy, and protected him from indictment by the war crimes tribunal sitting in The Hague. As for Saddam Hussein, while some US officials have recently made oblique references to war crimes, it has been obvious for years that Washington had no stomach for a serious investigation. Such an effort would inevitably implicate the US government and US weapons dealers who had armed and backed Saddam Hussein as part of official US policy throughout the 1980s, when Iraq's worst war crimes were carried out: the Anfal campaign that destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages, and the use of poison gas against Kurdish civilians and Iranian troops in 1988.

In both Iraq and Serbia, when Washington turned on its former allies, no political alternatives were sought, no negotiation was allowed. And certainly, in both cases, negotiation is still vitally needed; diplomacy must be returned to centre stage. With the Security Council deadlocked, the General Assembly has the right, under the Uniting for Peace precedent, to consider issues of peace and security that ordinarily lie in the Council's domain. While bringing NATO to heel, let alone the Milosevic-led Serb military, would by no means be guaranteed by such a UN resolution, a specific Assembly demand for an end to the bombing would go far towards delegitimizing NATO's role, challenging the US, and reasserting the centrality of the UN in dealing with the latest instance of ethnic cleansing. The Assembly could thus craft a policy with at least a better chance to, in the Hippocratic sense, "first, do no harm.".

And certainly it is not too late for the Assembly to authorize a combined UN-OSCE protection force, an armed force prepared to provide real safe havens for Albanian Kosovars - to make real the unrealized promise of Srebrenica. Certainly it is not too late for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to claim the initiative as the official coordinator of the refugee assistance campaign - in which NATO may be pressed into service providing cargo or human transport planes or logistical assistance, but in which the United Nations maintains the overall authority.

Finally, the General Assembly can go beyond calling for a resumption of serious diplomacy, to name its representatives to carry out such missions in the name of the international community. Such an effort might best be carried out by Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan - African statesmen who together empower the international legitimacy of the United Nations with the internationally recognized credibility of the South African president.

It is long past time for serious resources - financial, political, intellectual - to be put into efforts towards making real a UN capacity for preventive diplomacy. Until such time, however, pick-up diplomacy will be called on every time. Under those circumstances, in both Kosovo and Iraq, who knows what such a Mandela-Annan diplomatic 'dream team' might be able to accomplish, that economic sanctions and NATO bombing could not?

Copyright 1999 Middle East International