Punishing Saddam -- or the Iraqis
By Bill Blum -- An Analysis
"We have heard that a half million children have died," said "60 Minutes"
reporter Lesley Stahl, speaking of US sanctions against Iraq. "I mean,
that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And -- and you know, is the
price worth it?"
Her guest, in May 1996, U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, responded: "I
think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is
More recently, Secretary of State Albright has been traveling around the
world to gather support for yet more bombing of Iraq. The price, apparently,
is still worth it. The price is, of course, being paid solely by the Iraqi
people -- a million or so men, women and children, dead from the previous
bombings and seven years of sanctions. The plight of the living in Iraq,
plagued by malnutrition and a severe shortage of medicines, is as well
terrible to behold.
Their crime? They have a leader who refuses to let United Nations
inspectors search every structure in Iraq for "weapons of mass destruction,"
including presidential palaces. After more than six years, those
inspections have located and destroyed significant stocks of forbidden
chemical, biological and nuclear weapon material. But the U.N. team,
dominated by the United States and Great Britain, still refuses to certify
that Iraq is clean enough.
Inasmuch as Iraq is bigger than California, the inspectors might
understandably find 100 percent certainty impossible to achieve. But
Iraqis see another U.S. agenda -- the ouster of Saddam Hussein. The
seemingly endless dispute over the inspections and the maintenance of
tough sanctions, many believe, are simply the means to that end.
Indeed, President Clinton and his advisers have given weight to that
suspicion in the past, by declaring that the sanctions will remain as long
as Saddam Hussein holds power. In recent weeks, however, the administration
has put a different gloss on the policy.
During the State of the Union address, Clinton tried to lift the Iraqi
standoff from a personal confrontation to a more principled pedestal.
Clinton called for a stronger Biological Weapons Convention and spoke about
how the United States must "confront the new hazards of chemical and
biological weapons, and the outlaw states, terrorists and organized
criminals seeking to acquire them." Saddam was just the most prominent
miscreant to cross the line, a dangerous example to others, Clinton
Yet, Clinton's words concealed a more complex reality. For who among the
president's listeners knew, and who among the media reported, that the
United States had supplied Iraq many of the source biological materials
which Saddam's scientist needed for a biological warfare program?
According to 1994 Senate Banking Committee reports, the U.S. Commerce
Department permitted private American suppliers to deliver a veritable
witch's brew of biological materials to Iraq. The committee traced the
shipments at least back to 1985 and followed the pattern through Nov. 28,
1989. The exports were cleared despite reports that Iraq had used chemical
warfare and possibly biological warfare against Iranians, Kurds and Shiites
since the early 1980s.
"These biological materials were not attenuated or weakened and were
capable of reproduction," said one Senate report dated May 25, 1994.
"It was later learned," the panel wrote on Oct. 7, 1994, "that these
microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the
United Nations inspectors found and removed from the Iraqi biological
Among the U.S.-origin biological agents that often produce slow, agonizing
deaths were: Bacillus Anthracis, cause of anthrax; Clostridium Botulinum,
a source of botulinum toxin; Histoplasma Capsulatam, cause of a disease
attacking lungs, brain, spinal cord and heart; Brucella Melitensis, a
bacteria that can damage major organs; Clotsridium Perfringens, a highly
toxic bacteria causing systemic illness; Clostridium tetani, highly toxigenic;
and Escherichia Coli (E.Coli); genetic materials; and human and bacterial
The timing of the shipments corresponded to a secret Reagan administration
policy of aiding both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. That ruthless strategy
contributed to a drawn-out conventional war that claimed the lives of about
one million soldiers on the two sides. It also fit with an observation made
by Noam Chomsky in a PBS appearance on Sept. 11, 1990:
"It's been a leading, driving doctrine of U.S. foreign policy since the
1940s that the vast and unparalleled energy resources of the Gulf region
will be effectively dominated by the United States and its clients, and,
crucially, that no independent, indigenous force will be permitted to have
a substantial influence on the administration of oil production and price."
In line with that analysis, even after the Persian Gulf War, Washington
looked to the emergence of a pro-U.S. military leader to replace Saddam,
not to less manageable popular challenges. As an ABC documentary reported
on Feb. 7, first President Bush and then Clinton stood by while Saddam's
army crushed democratic uprisings in 1991 and 1996, respectively. In an
interview with Peter Jennings, former national security adviser Brent
Scowcroft pithily summed up the U.S. preference. "A general with a
brigade," Scowcroft explained.
Iraqis may wonder about other double-standards from Washington. As the
American public and media are being prepared to accept and cheer-lead the
bombing of Iraq again, the stated rationale is that Iraq is an "outlaw"
state which is ignoring a U.N. Security Council resolution.
But the United States did not regard itself as an "outlaw" state when it
continued a covert war against Nicaragua in the mid-1980s in defiance of
the World Court, the U.N. organization established to enforce international
Washington brushed aside international objections, too, when it invaded
Panama in 1989 and continues to do so by maintaining a harsh trade embargo
against Cuba that recently drew the condemnation of Pope John Paul II.
Washington also will not tolerate overly nosy inspectors in its own
backyard. Less than a year ago, the U.S. Senate established restrictive
ground rules for international inspectors in the United States when they
are examining chemical weapons facilities. At that time, the Senate showed
concerns about U.S. sovereignty that parallel Iraq's current objections to
the composition of inspection teams and their demands to search
The Senate act implementing the so-called Chemical Weapons Convention
stipulates that "the president may deny a request to inspect any facility
in the United States in cases where the president determines that the
inspection may pose a threat to the national security interests of the
United States." Another section of the act grants the president veto power
over individual inspectors, with that judgment not "reviewable in any
Clinton may be on shaky legal ground himself in enforcing U.S. terms on
Iraq. The U.N. has not specifically authorized any of its members to use
force in this case. One reporter picked up on that point at a Feb. 6 joint
news conference by Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair. "What gives
Britain and the United States the right to go it alone on this?" the
reporter asked. There was no response.
At press time, a new round of bombing against Iraq remained a possibility,
despite progress in U.N. negotiations. U.S. warships and planes remained on
alert in the Persian Gulf -- and the long-term chances for a U.S. strike
against Iraq were still strong.
But there might be one hope for the Iraqi people. The Washington Post
reported that Defense Secretary William Cohen has indicated that "U.S.
officials remain wary of doing so much military damage to Iraq as to weaken
its regional role as a counterweight to Iran." [Feb. 1, 1998]
So perhaps, in the not too distant future, when Iran begins to flex its
muscles, Washington might see the Iraqis less as a cause of "instability"
than a bulwark against "instability." Amid the constantly shifting sands
of Middle East politics -- and American geo-political interests in the
region's oil reserves -- it might not do to have Iraq completely
pulverized. Next time, Iraq might be needed to help dish out some good ol'
American "diplomacy" to Iran. ~
(c) Copyright 1998
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