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1. There is a Turning of the Tide (March 1975)

 2. On Iraq (March 7, 1999)


1.  A Newsweek interview on the publication of America's Impact on the World,

March 31, 1975






(First published March 7, 1999 in The Gainesville Sun under the title “A policy gone bad?”)

America's stand on Iraq increasingly seems fraught with danger.

Our present tactic of armed confrontation with Iraq invites catastrophe. We have gone from a position in the 1980s where we lavished arms and technical aid on that country in its war with Iran ("It is America whose hand can be seen emerging from the sleeve of the Iraqi government," said Khomeini), to a position where we are bombing Iraq daily.

Our bombing of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan would at one time have been condemned as 'acts of war'. The fact that our missiles were meant to kill 'a defiant head of state,' 'terrorists,' or 'destroy manufacturing plants producing weapons of mass destruction,' would not have legitimized such actions. The decision of the Clinton Administration in February 1999 to carry out preemptive strikes against any nation, if it felt such action was justified, has changed the accepted norms of international behavior. For us to make our own rules as to whom and what we can bomb will cause other powers to do likewise. Fortunately, until now, we have had the good sense only to bomb little countries; big countries would bomb right back.

Our business with Iraq should have been settled in January 1991, when under UN auspices (with Kuwait, oil, and the security of Israel at stake), Iraqi forces were defeated in Kuwait. Iraq was not invaded because it was beyond the UN mandate, and might have involved us in a wider war. Moreover, President Bush knew that the moment US troops made for Baghdad, his Arab and Egyptian allies would have deserted him. The domestic bases of the governments of Egypt and the Arab Gulf states were too insecure for them to indulge in an open-ended war against another Arab state.

Unable to get rid of Saddam Hussein by military action, our next move was to try to bring him down by disrupting the Iraqi economy. Harsh UN sanctions were imposed, which until the autumn of 1996 included Iraq's major export - oil. It was not difficult to get sanctions approved by the Security Council; many members of the UN at that time looked upon Saddam Hussein as a dangerous and unpredictable tyrant. Many still do.

In so far as sanctions were meant to cause a disintegration of the Iraqi economy, they succeeded - brutally so. Efforts made by the UN to lessen their severity were (until recently) always opposed by the US. To show leniency, our delegate at the UN argued, would only result in keeping Saddam Hussein in power longer, and his threat to the region (including Israel) alive. The only problem with the attempt to squeeze Iraq into submission was that it failed to achieve its aim. Iraq's defiance continued.

Frustrated by its inability to remove Saddam Hussein, and angry at his government's continuing non-compliance with UN resolutions, in 1998 Washington announced its intention to "take out" Saddam Hussein and his oppressive regime. In passion-charged language, he was denounced as a power-crazed dictator "worse than Hitler." Congress quickly set aside $100 million for his removal. No eyebrows were raised. It was as if the allocation of such a sum to overthrow another country's government was a legitimate, everyday occurrence.
Such action did not go unquestioned at the UN. (The fact that we owe that institution a billion dollars did not help either.) We were accused of vindictiveness - of wanting to destroy rather than punish Iraq. Even the most pro-American observer must regret the unusual element of bitterness that has crept into US-Iraqi relations. (To argue that the Iraqis are getting back what they gave to the Kuwaitis only encourages more hatred.) Blame for the suffering the Iraqis have endured (and which Saddam Hussein dramatizes for his own ends), was placed on our shoulders. According to UN sources, an estimated 700,000 Iraqi children have died from malnutrition and disease. Even if this figure is exaggerated, renewed airstrikes against Iraq can only make a dreadful situation worse.

Washington's response to growing UN criticism (and to keep attention on the threat Saddam Hussein posed), was to introduce the buzz-words: 'weapons of mass destruction' (the old buzz-word was 'oil'). Saddam Hussein, we were told, was about to attack his neighbors (and Israel) with weapons of mass destruction. But UN weapon inspectors (after a record eight years) have failed to produce any evidence that he still possesses such weapons. The largest stocks of weapons of mass destruction are in fact in the US, and the greatest use of them was made against Japan in 1945 (and against the Vietnamese in the Vietnam War).

Weapons of mass destruction have been about since the general introduction of the machine-gun in the 1880s. Chemical weapons were widely used by the Germans and the British in World War I.

Unable to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the argument has shifted from now to the future. If Saddam doesn't possess weapons of mass destruction today, he might possess and use them tomorrow. All countries of course have the potential to do good or harm. Yet to kill people today on the grounds that they might present a threat tomorrow defies common sense, to say nothing of international law. Imagine everyone doing that.

Wherever one stands in the present contest of will between Iraq and the US, the trend of world opinion is moving in Iraq's favor. There is a growing call at the UN for abolishing sanctions. The general feeling is that the human tragedy has gone on long enough. Innocent Iraqis should not have to go on suffering year after year because of the crimes of their leader. The weapon inspections and the no-fly zones, in place eight years after the Gulf War, are coming to be looked upon as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. France has threatened to end sanctions unilaterally. Many UN members, including China and Russia, share the French view. The 'consensus' which the US government claimed to have had on its side against Iraq seems - except for Britain and Israel - to have evaporated.

Our renewed airstrikes on Iraq have added to the criticism leveled against us. Iraq is now cast as another David struggling to resist Goliath. By deliberately attempting to provoke Iraq to hit back, we are portrayed as seeking an excuse for wider involvement. Even those who support the American point of view are uneasy about the danger of escalating the conflict. [The alleged attack on a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin on 2 August 1964 - which proved to be fictitious - opened the door to unlimited US involvement in the Vietnam War and all that followed.]
The greatest criticism of us comes from third world countries who condemn our bombing as 'gunboat diplomacy' (punishment meted out to a colony by an imperial power to ensure submissiveness). What we are doing now is what imperial Britain did before us. That Britain (which ruled Iraq 1920-33, and 1941-47) should join the US in bombing Iraq only adds to the irony of the situation. Iraq now has to get rid of what it sees as its old colonial master for the third time. We tend to forget that with the colonization of Asia ended, Iraq is the last Asian country to have to endure western military intervention all over again.

Iraq's unyielding attitude toward the US has left us with some hard choices. The worst response we can make to growing UN criticism is to leave the UN and wage an all-out war against Iraq alone. If the US were to crush Iraqi resistance, and get rid of Saddam Hussein, it could of course establish a puppet government. Yet (as Britain knows from its earlier failure), such action would have dire consequences. Our impulse to remove uncooperative heads of state has invariably ended in failure. Attempts (with other western countries) to remove Lenin from power in Russia after World War I ended dismally. A military coup in 1963, backed by the CIA, succeeded in removing President Diem of South Vietnam - to our bitter cost. Perhaps because our society focuses its attention on the future, we Americans have a habit of forgetting the lessons of the past.

The alternative to all-out war is to come to terms with Iraq (better sooner than later). The trouble with the diplomatic solution being pressed upon us at the UN is that it requires us to cease hostilities and resort to negotiation - which raises the problem of whether we can abandon our present tactic of confrontation without losing face. Unless France comes up with a formula to which we can subscribe, the odds are we will go on bombing, with the risk of causing a general conflagration. The underlying causes for a wider and deeper involvement of the US in the Middle East will remain.

Having embroiled ourselves in the power politics of one of the most unstable regions on earth - one that is rent with dispute and danger - our exit from the Gulf will prove much more difficult than our entry. Britain has been trying to remove its forces from that area since 1968. The Middle East is a region where there are no final solutions and no fresh starts. It is a place where by-gones cannot be by-gones, where one crisis inevitably leads to another, and where all too often nothing is solved and the finest hopes are blighted. One wonders if there are any solutions at all outside of time and sacrifice. Certainly, nothing will be achieved in that area without unending patience and understanding.

The best we can hope for is to avoid being dragged into widespread war. Our present use of force and rigidity of outlook make that a frightening possibility. To accept a situation where the anti-western feeling of the Arab people is growing is dangerous. The Arabs have been duped so often by the western powers that they no longer trust us. While promising Arab independence for fighting against the Turks in World War I, France and Britain (in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916) intended to enrich themselves at Arab expense. That is how Iraq fell into British hands. Even with the exploitation of oil, the western powers always had the best of the bargain. Anti-westernism was there before Saddam Hussein came to power and it will be there (enhanced by our present actions) after he is gone.

Teddy Roosevelt's advice about carrying a big stick and speaking softly was right. Passion and the unguarded word have always been the enemies of peace. With the possible recovery of Russia and the resurgence of China, his counsel will become doubly relevant. The US is enjoying the last days of being 'the only kid on the block.' Ten years from now we will have more to worry about than Saddam Hussein.