"Stopping a New War with Iraq"

08 August 2002

As the United States, United Nations, and Iraq argue over renewed weapons inspections in Iraq, Congress has begun to debate launching an attack to oust Saddam Hussein. Recent Senate hearings, leaked Pantagon battle plans and subsequent cautious remarks by some senators reveal that the capital's top political and military circles are divided on attacking Iraq.

Steven Rosenfeld: We're being told that the US must go to war pre-emptively against Iraq because Baghdad might some day soon succeed in building dangerous weapons and give that weapon to either an anti-American terrorist group, or even use that weapon against the US or American interests abroad. What's wrong with this analysis?

Phyllis Bennis: Pretty much everything is wrong with this analysis. Number one, no country in the world, not even the strongest power in the world, like the US is today, has the right to attack a country that has not attacked it. Pre-emptive strikes are illegal - period. That's the first thing wrong with it.

The other thing that's wrong with it is this notion that we can go to war 'on spec'. That's unacceptable. This idea that we might see weapons being built sometime in the future, and the government in Iraq might give them to some terrorist group, that might use them against somebody that we might like - this is nuts. This is not the basis on which you go to a war that you know will kill in the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, possibly in the thousands of American troops. This is simply unacceptable for the world's sole superpower or for any other country.

SR: In the testimony you wrote for the recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on going to war with Iraq, you mention the possible human toll: death; disease; destruction. And you say a heavy air bombardment of Bagdad, a city of four- to five-million people, would be like bombing Los Angeles or some similar-size American city. Is that a fair comparison?

Bennis: I think it is. I was, I must say, shocked, when I read the leaked battle plan in the pages of The Washington Post and later The New York Times, that talked about a new plan, one that was being called the 'Inside-Out Plan.' That plan would start with an effort to isolate the Iraqi leadership, cut off Baghdad from commanders in the rest of the country, and it went through this very long description of how Baghdad now is studded with anti-aircraft weapons and surrounded by the crack troops of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards. Now that may all be true. I have no idea. When I was there [in 1999] I didn't see the city studded with anti-aircraft batteries, but there well could be.

What it did not even mention is that Baghdad is also filled with somewhere between four- and five-million human beings - grandmothers, children, families, schools, hospitals, old people - just like Los Angeles, just like San Francisco. So the notion that you could sort of launch what was described as 'a massive air attack' to be followed by a significantly smaller ground assault than the earlier plans (one that would include something like 70,000 US ground troops instead of 250,000 US ground troops) but taking no account of who would die under that massive air assault...

Baghdad is a crowded, over-populated city. Like all countries in crisis, rural populations that can no longer survive in the countryside migrate to the cities looking for work, looking for housing - in desperation looking for anything they can find. The notion that the US would contemplate a "massive air attack" on a crowded civilian city is an abomination.

SR: So how credible were the Senate Foreign Relation Committee hearings on going to war with Iraq?

Bennis: Well on the one hand it was obviously good that the Senate was beginning to take some responsibility for addressing this issue in a substantive way. The problem is, of course, is that the hearings should have brought before the Senate a wide range of opinions about what policy in Iraq should be: those who have expertise in humanitarian conditions; those who have diplomatic expertise, as well as those who have either support or opposition to going to war.

As it turned out, they invited only what they thought were going to be hard-line supporters of going to war, and a few individuals who they thought might be softer supporters of going to war. In fact, what was I think interesting about those hearings was that even some of the most hard-core supporters of war against Iraq did not come out as cheerleaders for war in this context. They came out very cautious. They came out urging care be taken, that there not be any hasty judgments. They came out calling for more investigations, for more discussion. And I think that's a very important indicator that ruling circles in the United States today are not unified on this question.

SR: By that I take it you mean the Secretary of Defense and other top Pentagon brass appointed by the president want to go to war. The State Department is more reluctant. Some members of Congress are expressing reservations...

Bennis: There's a great deal of ambiguity in elite circles right now. And at a moment when the elites, those in power, are divided, that's the moment when anti-war voices can be heard in an entirely maximal way. So that this is a moment - because this is now very much a political issue, this is going to be driven by the polls. This is not something that's being driven by military necessity. It's being driven by politics.

The members of Congress, the Senators, the White House, the State Department, are going to be looking at how many faxes they get from people saying, 'Don't go to war.' How many calls to the various comment lines saying, 'We don't want a war with Iraq. We want the US to be a nation of laws, not a rogue state.' How many calls to members of Congress while they are in their districts - all of these things are going to have much more importance right now than any other time.

Copyright 2002 TomPaine.com