No Threat from Iraq

29 November 2002
Article

US policy towards Iraq is a replay of the deceits that launched and sustained its long conflicts with the Soviet Union and Vietnam.

Published at
openDemocracy

‘If you’re going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what you will do with it. It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Ba’athists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists. How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for the government, and what happens to it once we leave?’ (Dick Cheney, 13 April 1991, New York Times interview, explaining why the Bush administration did not pursue ‘regime change’ during the Gulf War.)

I feel as if I’m witnessing a scenario similar to the onset of the cold war, or the beginning of the Vietnam War.

In 1946–47, British and American leaders invented an imminent Soviet threat to invade western Europe. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the ‘Iron Curtain’ notion and President HarryTruman and his coterie transformed Stalin into an expansionist butcher.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson escalated an existing intervention into a full-scale ground war justified by the need to ‘save’ Vietnam and prevent a communist threat to the Pacific. He did so by manufacturing an ‘attack’ on the US navy.

Stalin was not about to overrun Europe. There was no threat from Vietnam. And today Iraq presents no threat whatever to the United States or its own neighbours. Saddam is a vile and ruthless dictator– hardly a reason to make war on Iraq. Al-Qaida is a dangerous terrorist network of criminals for which a relentless police hunt is required. Al-Qaida has no links with Iraq. Raùl Sànchez and Mike Woodsworth report on a discussion which describes itself as anti-war and offers ‘a conclusion comfortably in line with the administration’s current approach’. Todd Gitlin calls on us to support the Security Council resolution 1441 with its threat of force against Iraq. This misses the point. For its own purposes, the administration contrived the mobilisation of opinion, ambiguous or not, over Iraq. George W. Bush and his advisers have invented the imminent Iraq peril. We should firmly oppose this line.

Bush in defence of sacred resolutions of the worthless United Nations (UN)! The ‘axis of evil’ speech has set the tone and context for political discussion. It should not do so and we should not let it do so for us. But within months, the prestige media and political elite had accepted his Baptist sermon. Now, we are supposed to accept that the issue is not whether Iraq might conceivably threaten US interests in the distant future, but whether to take unilateral or multilateral action to combat it now.

Cycles of deceit

In the years after the Second World War, US leaders repeated implausible charges that the Soviet Union constituted a ‘clear and present danger’. Poised to attack western Europe, the Soviets also aimed to subvert democracy everywhere. These statements became the ‘factual’ basis for the cold war. The incessant propaganda campaign contained no reference to the USSR having just lost more than twenty million dead and twenty million more wounded; nothing about the 200 hundred cities demolished or the acute food shortage that gripped the Soviet people. Moreover, no mention was made that Soviet troops had no boots and that Stalin had made sure that Soviet railroad tracks did not coincide in width with those of eastern Europe, thus making it nearly impossible to think of supplying an invading army.

It did not take long for the publicity machinery to transmute the false claims into truisms that in turn became the foundations of military alliances such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organisation) and CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation). Strategic Air Command bombers flew round-the-clock missions with nuclear payloads. From a demonstrably false premise, dozens of institutions, mighty and small, developed to fight Soviet communism and win the cold war. This legacy lives on.

These cold war precedents should serve as a warning for the present pre-war situation with Iraq. The Bushites have repeated ad hominem arguments against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein who, because he committed horrendous crimes in the recent past such as gassing Iranians in the 1980s, must by now have accumulated weapons of mass destruction and forged links with terrorists. This demonisation of Saddam even includes claims that he tried to assassinate the elder Bush on a trip to the Persian Gulf in 1993. Like Stalin, Saddam is a genuine black hat.

So he is. That does not mean we must go to war against Iraq.

The missing links in the administration’s argument are facts. The Bushites are loath to support their claims with facts, perhaps because they have none. They also count on temporal atrophy to prevail in the public mind and obedience to authority to reign in the press corps.

The media occasionally poses issues that contradict today’s moralistic assertions and certitudes. But we do not hear the press asking the President and his advisers why US policy changed from being pro-Saddam in the 1980s to anti-Saddam in the 1990s. Declassified state department cables and court records indicate that President Ronald Reagan and Vice-President George Bush endorsed Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the 1980s, which is today considered an unspeakable crime.

In 1983, Reagan selected the perfect right-wing Republican as his emissary to Iraq to explain to Saddam that while the United States could not openly condone Iraq’s use of poison gas, it would look the other way because Washington wanted to prevent an Iranian victory: Donald Rumsfeld.

According to MSNBC (17 November), evidence of this agreement emerged from depositions taken in a January 1995 court case in which Howard Teicher, a National Security Council official, who travelled with Rumsfeld to Iraq, states that both Reagan and Vice-President Bush ‘personally delivered military advice to Saddam Hussein, both directly and through intermediaries.’

In his affidavit, Teicher writes that ‘CIA Director [William] Casey personally spearheaded the effort to ensure that Iraq had sufficient military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to avoid losing the Iran–Iraq war.’ The United States supplied ‘the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits,’ claims Teicher, and offered ‘military intelligence and advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to Iraq made sure that Iraq had the military weaponry required.’

Teicher says the military advice to the Iraqis was relayed ‘to Saddam from the highest levels of the US government, from President Reagan and then Vice-President Bush.’ In 1986, according to Teicher, ‘President Reagan sent a secret message to Saddam Hussein telling him that Iraq should step up its air war and bombing of Iran.’ This message was delivered by Vice-President Bush. At this time, Reagan and Bush knew that Saddam had used chemical weapons and cluster bombs and acquiesced ‘in order to stave off the Iranian attacks.’ The US also assisted in facilitating sales of such weapons to Iraq, says Teicher.

Today, Rumsfeld’s apparent amnesia about his 1980s mission as Reagan’s conciliator allows him to convert into appalling crimes the very acts that he encouraged Saddam to commit. ‘Saddam Hussein’s regime is a grave and gathering danger,’ he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on 19 September 2002. ‘It is a danger to its neighbours, to the United States, to the Middle East and to international peace and stability. It is a danger we do not have the option to ignore. The world has acquiesed in Saddam Hussein’s aggression, abuses and defiance for more than a decade.’

What a change. Rumsfeld more than acquiesced in Saddam’s aggression. In 1984, he delivered an encouraging message to Saddam that said: ‘The [United States government] recognises Iraq’s current disadvantage in a war of attrition, since Iran has access to the Gulf while Iraq does not, and would regard any major reversal of Iraq’s fortunes as strategic defeat for the west.’ In other words, the United States would support Iraq. Rumsfeld also discussed lifting sanctions to allow Iraq to buy military equipment.

Rumsfeld knew that Iraq had used poison gas against Iranian troops a few months before and that Iraq had begun building a chemical weapons infrastructure. He knew that Iraq planned to drop these chemical weapons on Iranian targets. In the New York Times (18 August 2002), Patrick Tyler reported that Reagan, Bush (the elder) and their top advisers had indeed provided logistical and intelligence information to Iraq in the 1980s. Tyler underlined that a US official had stated explicitly after touring the battlefield area in 1988: ‘The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern.’ But the administration ignored the story and so did the majority in the press corps.

Likewise, little has been done with Rumsfeld’s letter to then Secretary of State George Shultz. ‘I said I thought we had areas of common interest, particularly the security and stability in the Gulf, which had been jeopardised as a result of the Iranian revolution,’ wrote Rumsfeld in the 1980s. ‘I added that the US had no interest in an Iranian victory; to the contrary. We would not want Iran’s influence expanded at the expense of Iraq.’

In his 1993 memoirs, Shultz affirmed that reports of Iraq using chemical weapons began ‘drifting in’ by December 1983. In March 1984, the State Department confirmed that Iraq had used ‘lethal chemical weapons’ against Iranian combatants. UPI cited a team of United Nations experts saying that ‘mustard gas laced with a nerve agent has been used on Iranian soldiers in the 43-month Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq.’

Cruelty and silence

When the US government decides to punish a disobedient former friend or client, it starts a campaign to turn a white hat into a black hat to get public backing. Recall the 1989 campaign in which CIA and Drug Enforcement Agency operative, General Manuel Noriega of Panama, apparently refused to help the United States sufficiently in its Contra war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Within weeks, the media had stopped treating this former agent with respect and instead began to list his devilish activities.

To convince the public of Saddam's malevolence, the elder Bush employed a public relations firm that discovered a Kuwaiti princess who testified before Congress that Iraqis tossed Kuwaiti babies out of incubators. The media dutifully reported these horrors. Neither Congress nor the media questioned her bona fides until well after the story had become major headline news. Of course, she never saw the events she swore that she had witnessed. Indeed, they did not occur.

The US mass media infrequently refers to the number of casualties in the Gulf War or to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have died because of the twelve-year-old sanctions imposed by the United States under the auspices of the UN.

In a September trip to Iraq, I heard doctors describe increases in rates of child mortality. Indeed, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright affirmed that her willingness to pay the price of 500,000 dead Iraqi children attributed to the sanctions in order to punish Saddam.

We have yet to see factual proof that Saddam has actually accumulated mass destruction weapons or has ties to al-Qaida. On terrorist links, the facts seem to indicate the opposite. Former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter declared that Saddam’s ‘large-scale weapons of mass destruction programmes…had been fundamentally destroyed or dismantled by the weapons inspectors as early as 1996, so by 1998 we had under control the situation on the ground.’

Since 1998, Saddam may have accumulated some weapons of dubious potency, but by placing spies in the inspection team who gave coordinates of targets to the US Air Force for bomb delivery, the US government discredited the inspection team – at least in the eyes of the Iraqis. When the New York Times reported this, the story appeared and disappeared without causing a major ripple.

The inspectors have now arrived again. Their access to Saddam’s underwear has become the focus of US concern rather than the damage caused by a decade of bombing Iraq and imposing draconian sanctions on its medical system. Are these the non-violent equivalents of smart bombs? I met desperate doctors who cannot get key ingredients for chemotherapy cocktails or crucial parts for surgical procedures. And I saw the kids dying of cancer from exposure, presumably, to depleted uranium from US weapons. Iraqis must contend not only with their own monster leader who involved them in his adventures in Iran and Kuwait that cost perhaps a million Iraqi lives, but also with the cruel policies of the United States and the UK.

The war at home

The Bush administration pretends that Iraq threatens US interests. But in reality, they have invented the Iraq threat for the purpose of extending US control not just to the ‘disobedient’ regimes that remain and their oil, but also to the American people. This is naked imperialism. And it should be opposed. Not in a way that creates divisions among those who don’t want war. But nonetheless absolutely opposed. It has nothing to do with UN resolutions or the domestic character of Saddam’sbenighted regime. Iraq is not a danger or a priority. It is America’s war, conducted as part of America’s black and misconceived ‘axis of evil’ strategy. Bush has bullied the media, Congress and the UN Security Council into line – his line. That does not make it right.

Remember what Senator Wayne Morse said after the Senate passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964. ‘We’re going to become guilty, in my judgement, of being the greatest threat to the peace of the world. It’s an ugly reality, and we Americans don’t like to face up to it.’